Amarillo Ramp

Sabine Gruffat, Bill Brown

2017 | 00:24:10 | United States | English | Color | Stereo | 16:9 | 16mm film

Collection: Single Titles

Tags: Environment, Film or Videomaking, Landscape, Time

American sculptor and land artist Robert Smithson made art as a meditation on transition and change. Perhaps best known for his Spiral Jetty, an earthen berm that sits, occasionally submerged, in the Great Salt Lake of northern Utah, Smithson understood that his earthworks would be subject to natural and human forces and processes: erosion, rising water tables, and changing land use. Sabine Gruffat and Bill Brown propose an experimental Super 16mm film that documents Amarillo Ramp, Smithson's final earthwork project, by employing filmmaking procedures that are both responsive to the artwork's environmental context, and informed by Smithson's own artwork and art-making strategies. 

In 1973, oil millionaire Stanley Marsh 3 commissioned Smithson to create an earthwork on Marsh's cattle ranch north of Amarillo, Texas. The piece, called Amarillo Ramp, was conceived as a kind of earthen ouroboros, an unjoined ring that gradually rises in elevation. Smithson's Ramp is, in part, a response to the Keyline irrigation system conceived by Australian engineer P.A. Yeomans, a system that takes advantage of the topographical characteristics of a site, and uses strategic damming to maximize water flow and capture. Ranchers in the arid Texas Panhandle adopted this irrigation system, and Smithson was fascinated by its formal aspects and the ways it engaged with and responded to site.

Amarillo Ramp was Smithson's last art project: he was killed in a plane crash while flying over the site on an aerial survey. The piece was completed posthumously by Nancy Holt and Richard Serra. Though Amarillo Ramp still exists today, the site itself has been transformed. The artificial lake that once surrounded the Ramp has vanished, and the Ramp itself is overgrown with scrub and scattered with cow chips. The death of Stanley Marsh 3, Smithson's patron, further calls into question the artwork's future prospects.

In this film project, Gruffat and Brown propose to explore how Smithson's earthwork constitutes an index of the Anthropocene, a term coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen to describe the current geological epoch marked by the unprecedented degree to which human behavior impacts the earth’s ecosystem. Surrounded by the infrastructure of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and set atop the rapidly depleting Ogallala Aquifer, Amarillo Ramp is an observatory where human interventions and land uses and human scales of space and time are set against geological and cosmic scales. The Ramp challenges us as filmmakers to confront the existential implications of the Anthropocene with novel ways of thinking and seeing. Appropriating some of the strategies of Smithson's own filmmaking, as well as his sculptural practice (especially his Yucatan Mirror Displacements), this film seeks to understand the ways Smithson's Ramp asks us to reconsider how we know the world, how we perceive it, and how we represent it to ourselves and to each other.

Music: Lee Ranaldo

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Prizes + Awards

Experimental Honorable Mention, University Film & Video Association (UFVA) 

Jury Award Winner, That One Film Festival, Ball State University School of Art, Muncie, IN.

Award For Best Dialogue Between Art And Film,  Move Cine Arte Film Festival, Venice, Italy


Move Cine Arte Film Festival