Philadelphia Contemporary—a contemporary art organization connecting the people and places of Philadelphia through art and partnership—is pleased to unveil Freshwater by Jean Shin. With the Delaware River as its backdrop, the large-scale installation celebrates the twelve species of freshwater mussels found in the river and offers viewers the opportunity to reflect upon the compounding effects of industrial waste and overconsumption.
Freshwater mussels are some of the most endangered species in the United States, even as they are the backbone of freshwater ecologies. 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.
Shin’s fountain invites viewers to witness the process of filtration over the course of the exhibition’s run (June – November) and consider the sight of living mussels with wonder. 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.
“By making visible the mussels’ incredible capability to filter the river, Freshwater elevates these native species’ role in restoring the blue infrastructure from collapsing. 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,” said Shin.
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. By highlighting the luxurious appeal of mussel shells alongside the polluted water, the work also recognizes mussels’ complex history. In the 19th century, the pearl button industry obliterated freshwater mussel populations in the Midwest, while in the Northeast industrialization poisoned the Delaware River for generations to come.
About Jean Shin
Known for her large-scale installations and public sculptures, artist Jean Shin transforms accumulations of discarded objects into powerful monuments that interrogate our complex relationship between material consumption, collective identity and community engagement. Often working cooperatively within a community or region, Shin amasses vast collections of an everyday object or material—Mountain Dew soda bottles, mobile phones, 35mm slides—while researching its history of use, circulation and environmental impact. Distinguished by this labor-intensive and participatory process, Shin’s poetic yet epic creations become catalysts for communities to confront social and ecological challenges. As such, her body of work includes several permanent public artworks commissioned by major agencies and municipalities, most recently a landmark commission for the MTA’s Second Ave Subway in NYC.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in the US, Shin works in Brooklyn and Hudson Valley, New York. She is a tenured Adjunct Professor at Pratt Institute and holds an honorary doctorate from New York Academy of Art. Shin’s work has been widely exhibited and collected in over 150 major museums and cultural institutions, including solo exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, and Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where in 2020 she was the first Korean-American woman artist featured in a solo exhibition. Shin has received numerous awards, including the Frederic Church Award for her contributions to American art and culture. Her works have been highlighted in The New York Times and Sculpture Magazine, among others.