Jean Shin: Freshwater

Curated by Kerry Bickford

In an open air pier, bulbous glass vessels are suspended in the air from top to bottom. There are four rows of glass vessels, a few contain live mussels that are filtering water in real time. Below the suspended vessels is a shallow fountain basin filled with water trickling down from above, which has been filtered by the mussels. In the basin are pearl blankets in various mounds, the pearls range from snowy white pearlescent to the darker outer shell color of mussels. The pearl blankets were hand sewn and shimmer with each drop of water that comes into contact with them.

Freshwater is a new commission by the artist Jean Shin that celebrates and pays tribute to the freshwater river mussel, while inviting those of us who live along the Delaware River watershed to consider our responsibilities towards the health of the river and its ecosystem. Interweaving wonder and grief, beauty and decay, Freshwater draws upon the history of the decline and restoration of some of the most endangered species in the United States and offers a glimpse of a healthier potential future for the river and all who depend on it.


A lone mussel shells sits in a glass vessel with water pumped in from the Delaware River

A Living Laboratory

Freshwater mussels serve as the backbone of freshwater ecologies—a single mussel can live up to 80 years and filter between 10 and 15 gallons of water a day, cleansing rivers and depositing nutrients into soils. The centerpiece of Freshwater is a fountain that doubles as a living laboratory, offering visitors the opportunity to see local, freshwater mussels filtering water piped directly from the Delaware River, which is then returned to the river in real time. In the fountain, chains of hand-blown glass vessels are suspended from the ceiling, each containing a live mussel specimen. The curved glass of the vessels magnifies each mussel as they filter the water and anchor themselves in the sand, rendering an overlooked species wondrously visible to the public eye. The stream of water flowing through the vessels culminates in a mirrored basin of clear, purified water that is then returned to the river.


Pearl button blankets in river water basin

The Origin of Pearl Buttons 

Freshwater is haunted by the specter of industrial overconsumption and waste that have depleted freshwater mussel populations in the northeast United States, as well as other major watersheds across the country. In the 19th century the pearl button industry obliterated freshwater mussel populations in the midwest, while in the northeast industrial pollution poisoned the Delaware River for a generation. Responding to this history, the basin of the Freshwater fountain is draped in blankets of thousands of vintage pearl buttons, all salvaged from warehouses along the east coast. Each button represents a mussel that was harvested to create decorative items that were, until their incorporation into this project, never used. As we gaze into the mirrored portions of the fountain’s basin, we are invited to witness ourselves as part of the balance between the past devastation reflected by the buttons and the present revitalization on display in the vessels above.


Stand alone sculpture featuring reclaimed materials and mussel shells

Regenerative Reuse

Reflecting on the forces that have contributed to the collapse of freshwater mussel populations, Jean Shin has also contributed three rock-like sculptures encrusted with clusters of empty mussel shells that mimic the appearance of a healthy mussel bed. They are constructed from materials sourced from Philadelphia’s waste stream, collected from the banks of the Delaware River over a series of months, as part of a collaboration with Recycled Artists in Residency (RAIR). These sculptures are a deathly reminder that commercial excess is an ever-present issue, and one in which all Philadelphians are implicated. 

freshwater mapgraphic horizontal

Map of water and shell collection sites along the Delaware River

Each sculpture is also topped with samples of still, unfiltered water taken from various points along the Delaware River watershed, which have been provided by project collaborators, youth educators, and members of the general public. The use of domestic drinking vessels alludes to the Delaware’s role as the source of more than half of the drinking water in the city of Philadelphia.

Freshwater draws out the tensions between the invaluable role of the living mussels in our ecologies and the choice to materially prize these species in death. It asks us to confront how the consequences of thoughtless consumption and unchecked industrial excess can reverberate across generations and how closely our lives are entangled with species that we can easily overlook. But Freshwater is also a tribute to the slow, necessary labor of restoration—the work of numerous scientists and partners in the region that offer us all hope for a better future.   

About the project

Freshwater is the first new commission to be presented as part of Water Marks, a public art program along the Delaware Waterfront, presented by Philadelphia Contemporary in partnership with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. Support for Freshwater has been generously provided by the VIA Art Fund and the Yaverland Foundation.

Water Marks references the term “high-water mark,” the point at which a body of water is at its highest. To live and work along the water in our current historical moment is to witness the ways in which precarity, specifically precarity caused by climate shifts, extreme weather, and industrial shortsightedness, threatens to upend our lives and livelihoods. Water Marks will be an invitation for contemporary artists from a range of practices to respond to this precarity, as well as the river’s possible futures, making their own temporary marks along the Delaware River.


Artist Jean Shin standing beside the living laboratory and fountain

About the artist

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.

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 forthcoming 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.