The 4 Seasons of Veronica Read, on view this summer on level two of the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building, portrays the titular Ms. Read as well as her hundreds of Hippeastrum plants. Turkish filmmaker and artist Kutluğ Ataman filmed Read, a middle-aged, middle-class Englishwoman, in her South Harrow flat over the course of a year. The result is four videos, one for each of the four seasons that Ataman spent documenting Read, that intimately depict Read and the plants that she was devotedly cultivating at the time. Together, the videos are a portrait of Read, a record of her remarkable Hippeastrum collection, and a study of her singular passion for a particular flower.
At the time Ataman filmed Read, she was England’s National Plant Collection Holder of the Hippeastrum. In this role, Read was responsible for growing, preserving, and documenting a comprehensive collection of Hippeastrum plants. The English have been cultivating the Hippeastrum, which is in fact native to South America, since the late eighteenth century. The plant, whose name derives from ancient Greek and means “knight’s-star-lily,” is colloquially (and erroneously) referred to as the amaryllis. Because it blooms in winter it is a popular Christmas decoration and gift.
Ataman captured Read in her flat, and his videos show her caring for, showing off, and talking about her Hippeastrum collection. She explains, and often demonstrates, how she cleans the Hippeastrum bulbs, checks them for fungus and mites, dries them for future replanting, stores them, and plants them. The segment of the film made in winter features the glorious culmination of the work that Read describes and performs in front of Ataman’s camera; in it, her brilliant, blooming plants dominate her flat and, in turn, the lens.
Ataman’s videos of Read are projected onto four large screens that are arranged to form a square; each side of the square features one of the seasons. The effect is cacophony. The arrangement of the screens and the simultaneous projection of Ataman’s footage transform the quiet, sometimes tedious documentary footage into a dynamic montage. Read’s overlapping monologues and the volley of footage on the four screens suggest the intensity of Read’s obsession with her plants.
In this way, the installation can be interpreted as a manifestation of Read’s madness. But Ataman portrays Read with respect and without judgment. Alternatively, the work is a study of aesthetic beauty as the driving purpose in the life of one woman. Explaining the joy her flowering plants bring her, when they are in bloom in winter, Read says, “There’s so much nastiness and unpleasant in life. The beauty of the plant is very important…It makes me feel better.” The 4 Seasons of Veronica Read documents Read’s appreciation for beauty and dedication to cultivating it.
Image credit: Kutluğ Ataman, The 4 Seasons of Veronica Read, installation view Istanbul Modern, 2010. Photo courtesy and © the artist.