Ways of knowing

Dean Banewl 1999 cows

Tacita Dean, Banewl, 1999

It’s just possible that art informs my understanding of the world a bit too much.

On holiday last month while driving through the Cornish countryside, conversation turned to the nature of farming in Cornwall. I knew there was arable farming from buying Cornish vegetables in the supermarket. Fair enough. But I realised that it wasn’t the cream teas or the plentiful local ice-cream that brought dairy farming to mind. No. It was art. Tacita Dean’s 1999 film Banewl to be precise.

Banewl is hardly action packed. Made during the total eclipse of the sun visible – albeit mostly masked by clouds – in the West Country, the hour-long work shows the edited highlights of a couple of hours in the lives of a herd of dairy cows on the day the sky went dark.

Dean Banewl 1999 installation

Banewl installation view

At the start, we follow the cows as they are moved from the milking shed to a field. The work is quietly contemplative. This is the pastoral idyll as what should by rights be very boring film. The narrative, such as it is, is a predictable one. We know the sun will briefly disappear behind the moon. We know that when this happens the sky will go dark. We know that the darkness, which may fool the cows but won’t fool us, will be short-lived. And yet it somehow Banewl is compelling.

Dean Banewl 1999 eclipse

The cows stand around. The eat a bit of grass. Gradually the light fades. Interrogates the sky but the cows, accepting the unexpected arrival of night, just have a little lie down. The sun reappears and the cows restart their interrupted day. They eat a bit more grass. Normality is restored and all is right with the world.

I’ve seen Banewl a couple of times and both times I’ve not been alone in sitting through the whole 63 minutes of the film. Knowing full well there would be no surprises, nonetheless I somehow needed to watch it all. Admittedly part of the appeal of moving image art is sometimes a welcome pause and a little sit down but that’s at best a small part of the story. There’s something extraordinary about the way the world falls silent during an eclipse (and I witnessed the 1999 one as a partial eclipse in central London where the falling silent wasn’t about the animal world but about the traffic coming to a standstill while people concentrated on the sky); Dean lets us experience that not as drama but as quietly compelling inevitability. Events play out exactly as we know they will; the piece works not because of the drama of the eclipse but because of the comfort of seeing things going according to plan.

I hadn’t thought about Banewl  in years. I’d eaten local ice-cream, ooh, probably earlier that very day. Why then was it art that told me there’s dairy farming in Cornwall?

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