PHILADELPHIA — The Delaware River that flows between Camden, New Jersey and Philadelphia may be pretty to look at, but you’d be well advised against taking a swim in its polluted waters. It wasn’t always like this — the riverbed was once home to a flourishing community of mussels. In northeastern cities like Philadelphia and New York, industrial pollution did double damage by wiping out the little creatures that naturally filter rivers. When thriving, each one can purify up to 15 gallons of water a day.
As a part of Water Marks, Philadelphia Contemporary’s series on the Delaware River, artist Jean Shin is shining a light on the mussels’ story through Freshwater, an installation at Philadelphia’s Cherry Street Pier. Its centerpiece is a soaring fountain made of glass orbs containing live mussels born at the Fairmount Water Works mussel conservatory. Water from the Delaware river is piped up to the cavernous pier ceiling and allowed to trickle down through the vessels, where it’s filtered by Eastern pondmussels and alewife floaters, two of the 12 endangered mussel species native to the riverbed.
The glass orbs contain more life than just mussels: Although the proliferation of bright green algae is a part of the art piece-cum-terrarium, it means that they must be deep cleaned monthly. When the glass is clear, it acts as a magnifying glass, illuminating its silent inhabitant resting on a bed of sand.
Before being piped back into the Delaware, the water splashes into a pool filled with gleaming mounds of pearl buttons. In the Mississippi River, an 1800s fashion craze for these buttons made out of the shellfish’s bodies spelled their destruction. “It was like a gold rush,” Shin says. But like any trend, they went out of style, and countless finished buttons were forgotten in storehouses, which is where Jean found thousands of them for her work. “The tragedy there was to imagine that they had been extracted from all over the world and made into incredible, beautiful buttons that were never used…I feel like this extinction was for absolutely no reason, just that we thought we wanted them.”
Shin’s past works have included jackets for trees made from discarded leather, blankets of Mountain Dew bottle caps, and mound of vinyl records forming a cresting wave. But this is her first installation with live animals. “When they get introduced to the sand…they get comfortable, and they even dance and move around,” said Shin, “So I really feel like ‘Oh, my God, I think they’re happy!’” Their life contrasts sharply with the surrounding sculptures of discarded plastic items encrusted with polished, dead mussel shells collected from the river around the city.
Shin worked with glass artist Alex Rosenberg to create the mussel’s floating homes. “We started making these copper wire forms and blowing the glass into it,” said Rosenberg. “The copper would be rigid and the glass would blow into it, and it started making this bubbly, globe-y shape.” This was just one connection in an unprecedented network of collaborations across Philadelphia allowed for the creation and upkeep for this living, breathing fountain. “All of our scientific collaborators and all of our partners on this, the community of people who do mussel restoration in Philadelphia, is just an incredible network of collaborators,” said Philadelphia Contemporary’s Curator of Ecological Futures Kerry Brickford. This multitude of connections show that Shin’s work is about more than the mussels themselves, it’s also a reflection of Philadelphia’s artisans, scientists, and more determined members of the human realm coming together to change the tide.