Nick Hackworth

Steve McQueen, South London Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Steve McQueen, recipient of an OBE in 2002 and the Turner Prize in 1999, recently gained the unfortunate distinction of being the first official British war artist unable to complete his commission. The situation in Iraq was deemed too dangerous.

Quite how McQueen, known for his polished video pieces, would have responded to the most televised war in history remains unknown, and this exhibition sees him treading the rather safer ground of outer space.

On show is a single installation, Once Upon a Time, a 70-minute slide show of 116 images, accompanied by a soundtrack of people speaking in tongues, the nonsensical language of ecstatic religious fervour. The pictures were chosen by Nasa to depict life on Earth, for the benefit of all the aliens out there, and placed on the Voyager probe launched in 1977.

If aliens ever do see them, they’ll have a good laugh at some of the wonderfully dated, over-saturated colour photographs of heroic new skyscrapers, shiny new supermarkets and interesting haircuts. They will also see pictures of a birth, a mother and child, biological diagrams of man and his functions, charts of weights and measures, mathematical equations and more: human life compressed into a handful of images.

It is a poignant cultural document, showing not only one society’s self-orientated view of the world, from which war, poverty and disease have been banished, but also the mystery of the need for intelligent life to communicate and be understood. The accompanying gibberish is meant to highlight the subjectivity of our conceptions of knowledge, its outsider status contrasted with the official seal on the images.

The subjectivity, however, is self-evident, which renders the speaking in tongues a pointless distraction, added perhaps to justify the piece’s status as original art. The images, though, stand alone, and should be seen, whether in the gallery or not.

Until 7 November. Information: 020 7703 6120.