Mother of Pearl

June, 2024


Commissioned by Zone2Source

Floating empty mussels have taken over the space. A little light illuminates their pearlescent skin, drawing attention to tiny acts of violence: starting pearls. Pearls are the result of the self-defense tactic of the mussel; when they are penetrated by an unknown substance, they encapsulate the intruder in a bio-geo layer that is mother-of-pearl. They keep doing this until they die, incorporating the polluter into the shell.

Storied matter

Throughout history, pearls have sparked legends and stories of beauty, mysticism, war, and value. Riverine pearls were long a major coveted item; it is said the Romans conquered Britain for pearls. They have also long been a source for the pearl industry along river banks, here in the Netherlands along the Vecht for the production of pearl buttons for instance. The most famous local pearl-producing mussel has long gone extinct, though it still exists as a red-listed species in neighboring countries. Mussels are vital to a riverine ecosystem, being able to filter water at an astonishing rate. However, their dependence on filtering water makes them extremely vulnerable as everything that is in the water also passes through their bodies. With their long lifespan, their decline is not always easily noticeable. But when the elders die off without a new generation to follow them up, the riverine ecosystem topples like a house of cards.

Materiality of place

In Mother of Pearl, swan- and painters' mussels found on the banks of the Amstel River are given care after violence. They were fished up by birds and thrown on the banks to open. These mussels produce pearls; though they never grew old enough to get to any noticeable size. Yet they are a testament to the caring response of the mussel to an unseen battle underwater — what lies at the heart of every starting pearl? An invasive insect? A grain of sand that once started as a big rock somewhere far away? A piece of plastic? How hard are we making the mussels work to keep our waters clean? And who depends on them to survive?

Mother of Pearl is developed for my solo exhibition Between No Longer and Not Yet, that is part of a series of solo projects in which Zone2Source invites artists to use the exhibition and the park as a living laboratory for co-creation and collective research, together with with human and other-than-human actors of the Amstelpark. In doing so, the public becomes part of both the results as well as the artist's artistic processes through various public programmes.