Showing Their Mussel: Living art lab on Cherry Street Pier considers the mollusk and fresh water

Freshwater mussels were once the most abundant bivalve mollusks in rivers around the world, but their populations have seen steep declines. They are now some of the most endangered species in the United States.

Local art org Philadelphia Contemporary unveils Freshwater, a new large-scale installation by Jean Shin. To draw attention to the lives of these overlooked species, which can filter between ten and fifteen gallons of water in a day, Shin conceived of a fountain that doubles as a living laboratory.

Erected alongside the Delaware River on Philadelphia’s Cherry Street Pier, the chains of glass vessels contain live freshwater mussels. River water trickles through glass spheres with the mussels, filtering the stream in real time and collecting it in a mirrored basin filled with blankets of pearl buttons. The clear and purified water then travels back to the river from which it came.

A collection session in progress

“By making visible the mussels’ incredible capability to filter the river, Freshwater elevates these native species’ role in restoring the blue infrastructure from collapsing,” said Shin. “Juxtaposed next to the samples of polluted river water, dead shells, and the vast amount of unused pearl buttons, the project is an urgent call to care for freshwater mussels as vital to our healthy, living ecology.”

Shin’s fountain invites viewers to witness the process of filtration over the course of the exhibition’s run. Standing as a monumental water clock, the piece marks the passage of time and calls attention to the climate crisis. What’s more, it acknowledges the slow, necessary labor of restoration.

Alongside this central fixture, the Brooklyn-based artist has created a series of sculptures that incorporate mussel shells collected from the shores of the river. Cleaned and buffed to show the radiant, mother-of-pearl interiors for which these species have long been prized, the neighboring sculptures are topped with glass vessels full of unfiltered river water samples gathered by the participating community and the public.

“Like the site-specific installations and public sculptures for which she is known, Shin’s Freshwater prompts Philadelphians to reflect upon critical environmental issues while also inspiring them with awe,” said Harry Philbrick, founding director and CEO of Philadelphia Contemporary.

“We hope this project will draw attention to the role of mussels in the ecology of the Delaware River. Our communities rely on a healthy river, and the monumentality of Jean’s work underscores the importance of protecting this ecosystem now and in the future,”  added Kerry Bickford, Curator of Ecological Futures at Philadelphia Contemporary, who developed the project with Shin.

Freshwater opens with a reception and party June 16, 2022, and will be on view at the Cherry Street Pier through early November 2022.

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