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El Degüello

Immortal, matter-of-fact words relating to Santiago Sierra’s work Polyurethane Sprayed on the Backs of Ten Workers at the Lisson Gallery in July 2004. For this action the artist hired ten Iraqi immigrants, provided them with Hazchem protective clothing and plastic sheeting, lined them up in the gallery and sprayed their backs with polyurethane foam until the material hardened into large free-standing forms. They then carefully emerged from their cocoons leaving the residual elements abandoned in the space for all to view.

On 13 October 2003 Santiago Sierra’s action entitled El Degüello (The Slaughter) was due to take place for 24 hours from 12 noon in front of the New York Stock Exchange building on Wall Street. However, the police prevented the action from happening.

In December 1835 during the occupation of the then Mexican State of Texas the city of San Antonio was taken and with it the military fort of El Alamo. Tradition holds that on the morning of 6 March 1836 the Mexican troops, headed by El Generalissimo Antonio Miguel Lápez de Santa Anna, surrounded El Alamo for thirteen days without recapturing it. During those thirteen days the uninterrupted performance of an old Spanish military bugle tune, inherited by the Mexican army, was ordered. That tune was El Degüello.

The melody was recreated in 1959 for director Howard Hawks in his film Rio Bravo, but instead of using the original bugle tune the composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who later scored the 1960 film The Alamo, was asked to invent a melody with the same title and symbolic use. A Russian émigré, Tiomkin was born in 1894 and raised in the Ukraine. He became a US citizen in 1937 and is best remembered for his scores for Hollywood Westerns. When asked why a Russian composer should be so easily able to depict the Wild West, Dimitri Tiomkin would joke that there was little difference between the steppes and the prairies.

On 25 June 2000, the Institute of Popular Music at the University of Liverpool conducted an exercise centred on the suggestion that music can, in a split second, relay not only moods but also a sense of place. Twenty-five short unidentified musical extracts that exemplify this phenomenon were played. The test group were asked to write down what location, if any, they thought was being communicated through each example. On listening to an extract from Dimitri Tiomkin’s prelude from the 1947 film Duel in the Sun, the largest percentage wrote down the words ‘American’, ‘Western’ or ‘film’. Santiago Sierra used Dimitri Tiomkin’s version of El Degüello in his action of 2003, which, despite the intervention of the authorities, was nevertheless performed a couple of streets down from Wall Street in Battery Park. Twelve buglers played the tune in shifts over the 24-hour period. Liverpool Biennial will exhibit for the first time the documentation of this action and a CD of the soundtrack is included with this catalogue.

Santiago Sierra sees the differences in society. He initiates actions that refer to and intervene directly in everyday life. He undermines systems and ordered structures to reveal the mechanisms of economic and cultural exploitation. His actions are tests, of process and permissions, that challenge the host and provide a surprise, a surreal turn, for the audience.

Mark Daniels

Project Credits

Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial International 04

With thanks to Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich and Lisson Gallery, London

Supported by the Spanish Embassy


18 September – 28 November 2004


BBC Big Screen
Elliot Street