July 29, 2007

At Home They Are Tourists: Picnic & Panic

On Sergio Langer’s Drawing "Clase Media"

text by Armando Andrade Tudela


An image by the Argentinean cartoonist Sergio Langer depicts the following: a middle class couple walking with their two children, all wearing summer clothes, all connected to their mobile phones, while all wearing a (protective?) helmet. The father is pushing a supermarket trolley stuffed with intestines and meat, which could be either human or animal - or both.
Following Argentinean traditions we suspect they’re animal and that the family is on its way to a sort of apocalyptic barbecue or picnic. Yet, considering Argentina’s recent history, we might consider this reading as manifestly misleading and deceitful.


To quote Sergio Langer:

Revisiting my drawings, comics, cartoons we can find, with little effort, a common denominator: my total resistance and opposition to all/any system of oppression and subjugation, this being religious, economic, sexual or racial. I stand against any system that cancels human rights and suppresses cultural traits.

Langer continues to state how he searches, and finds, his subjects in the detritus of culture.


Considering Argentina’s recent history, and specifically the "Dirty War" and the horrors of General Videla’s Junta, one can argue that Langer’s drawing tries to suggest to the viewers:

a. The systematic destruction of the domestic and therefore of all (our) basic and natural channels of communication.

b. The permanent awareness of danger and the stable presence of horror.

c. The disruption of conventional patterns of collective behavior and interaction. An increasing corruption of traditional molds and therefore, an essentially fractured relationship with the past, with the historical.


Looking at the drawing, Langer’s style may strike us as compulsively grotesque. Nonetheless, the drawing presents itself with clarity and direction. The white background makes the image iconic and leaves no room for confusion or metonymy; as if early camouflage tactics had been interiorized and dissolved inside a kind of post-camouflage reorganization of image and meaning. Langer’s (anti-)iconic drawing states, amongst many other things, that we can only respond to the detritus of culture with more necessary detritus and that the domestic as such needs (demands?) to be illustrated as alien and gross.

He goes as far as picturing the true popular icon Ernesto ‘El Che’ Guevara on the kid’s T-shirt making it evident that the difference between (the presence of) a representation of ‘utopia’ – as evinced by the incorporation of Guevara into the image - and the decay of the present is nil and void, for both are byproducts of a broken present and a fractured symbiosis of the past.

Likewise, the seemingly grotesque depiction of Guevara might also store another critical dimension; in coordination with Langer’s overall image, we can say that for Argentineans the grounds for projecting utopias (Guevara as the eternal revolutionary) and symbolic meta-structures (following the model of the family as the center of society) has collapsed and nosedived: its repair is only possible via a thorough and savage reconsideration of recent history. The ideas of place and being, exemplified by context (family) and ideological models (Guevara), have cast away and left Argentines in an insufficient reality. At home, they’ve become tourists.


Let’s return to the drawing. In the image, only two colors are added to prolong our confusion. In the supermarket trolley, intestines and meat are dyed red and pink. Despite the obvious gesture, this unfriendly move might suggest the following questions: tracking Argentinean traditions, the barbecue - nicknamed 'asadito' - symbolizes collective values as it refers to deeply ingrained notions of land, heritage and identity. Likewise, it also signs the ‘domestication’ of the savage mind, by turning an early Gaucho act into a familiar, ‘harmless’ ritual. Langer’s powerful refrain is triggered when the colored intestines and meat collide with the unnecessary use of helmets.

So, we’re left with two options: to consider the possibility of apocalyptic barbecuing becoming a new trend of picnic in the days of stable violence or to agree that old traditions have been modified and/or utterly reshaped by Argentina’s recent history of barbarism. Is it possible that a renewed history of violence has displaced a history of traditions? Can any sign of domesticity and collective participation survive after years of systematic horror? How long does it take - to paraphrase Michel de Certeau - to exile panic from history?


If Videla’s Dirty War conditioned cartoonist to deploy tactics of counter-censorship and camouflage, what happened after the (decline and) fall of the Junta can be seen, through Langer’s drawing, as a re-processing of anti-censorial strategies. Like a permanent hang-over, what is left in the image is a feeling of overall mnemonic disgust seeking not to indoctrinate the past but to stage the present as a condition of Argentina’s recent history. In other words, Langer’s recognition of today’s reality is equivalent to the act of acknowledging the panic(s) of the past. He does so by chaining together a series of symbols that have acquired, through the passing of time, a condition of in-temporality inside the Argentinean imaginary.

By using the notion of the ‘family’ as a representation of domesticity, as a metaphor of non-barbaric behavior and non-barbaric behavior as a fundamental requirement for political, social and cultural stability, Langer is able to exemplify the deterioration of this (partly symbolical, partly real) chain inside everyday life after the Dirty War. By the same token, the use of Che Guevara’s image and the ambivalent reference to barbecuing can also be seen as Langer’s stake on the vulnerability of both collective and global utopias and national traditions, both of them presented - after such a high degree of historical degradation- as impossible realities.


If counter-censorial strategies tested the gaps between meaning and image in the anchoring of direct messages, in Langer’s drawing even quasi-iconic images are stained by the pollution of a history of violence that demolished any form of transparent communication.

Confronted with such opacity, I can only think of how one image can stand in direct opposition to itself; this is a bifurcation of sorts. Just like the two words that in the process of my writing of this text have almost become synonymous:

Picnic and panic

Sergio Langer was born in 1959. In the midst of Videla’s barbaric dictatorship, Langer published his first comics. From then onwards, he has become a major representative of Argentinean comics.

Armando Andrade Tudela (° 1975, Lima, Peru) is researcher and visual artist.

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