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Sets without an actor

Thomas Demand At the Fondation Cartier, 261 bvd Raspail, Paris until 28 January and at Victoria Miro Gallery, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 until 13 January

Few shows come with such architectural credentials as Thomas Demand's at the Fondation Cartier in Paris: a gallery by Jean Nouvel, an installation by Caruso St John, even a contribution from Le Corbusier; not to mention Demand's photographs themselves, in which interiors continually recur.

But these photographs, which may be as much as 180 x 300cm in size, are not what they seem to be from a distance. The bland room of photocopiers in Copyshop, their lids agape in the glare of overhead lights, is not in any actual building. It is a surrogate, modelled life-size in cardboard and paper - a tableau which Demand (trained as a sculptor) has deliberately constructed to capture on film.

Such tactics are not so unusual these days.

During the past two decades or so, photography - once only grudgingly regarded as an 'art' - has become a staple of galleries and museums. While gaining this new legitimacy, merited or not, it has renounced any claim to give an objective picture of the world and made a virtue of artifice. Its knowingly staged scenes are comments on 'reality', not documents of it.

At the same time, rather than plucking mundane items from the local hardware store and giving them a fancy title, as Duchamp did with his 'readymades', artists have gone to surprising lengths to replicate them: from Jasper Johns' bronze beer cans and Andy Warhol's painted-wood Brillo boxes; to Peter Fischli and David Weiss' room at Tate Modern, whose contents - tools, building materials etc - have all been crafted from polyurethane foam.

It is as if, in a world dominated by images, reality is now always in inverted commas.

Demand's work, however, is more than a symptom of this scepticism or estrangement; it can be truly disconcerting and, for all its coolness, sometimes moving.

Human beings are exiled from these photographs, which are full of props, awaiting but indifferent to our use. There is an empty podium, a table at the end of a meal, a drawing office with sheets of blank paper unrolled on its desks, the top of a staircase that descends into the dark. Speeches are delivered, designs drawn, the outcome may be good or ill (these images imply); but while the props persist the performers exit. Demand restates in a contemporary way art's old theme of human transience - we are just passing through.

On reading the catalogue, you discover that these tableaux, based on material that Demand has come across by chance, may have specific associations: one mysterious twilight interior is a model of Jackson Pollock's Long Island studio; the drawing office is in Munich at the time of post-war reconstruction. But the anonymity, the generic character, of the scenes prevails. It could be any drawing office anywhere; it is more the idea of a place than a place. That the constructed nature of the tableaux is not in doubt, their card-and-paper simulacra always evident, only underlines this.

Much like Mies' Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Nouvel's Fondation Cartier presents problems for two-dimensional work, which is usually confined to the basement. But Demand's photographs are hung on the 8m high ground floor, glazed on all sides. To enable this, Caruso St John has installed walls at intervals across the width of the gallery to within a half-metre or so of the glass, nowhere impinging on the external envelope or obscuring the visual connection between the street at the front and the garden behind.

In an effective move, these partitions have been entirely covered with some of Le Corbusier's Salubra wallpapers - red, blue, yellow-green, grey etc, a different colour on either side of each wall. Apertures create vistas through these adjacent spaces, framing one colour with another as does an Albers' Homage to the Square.

Some pieces in this Paris exhibition are also on show in London at the Victoria Miro Gallery, which recently left the West End for the fringes of Hoxton. It now occupies a Grade II-listed former factory that Trevor Horne (in collaboration with Miro and her artists) has adapted for its new use, creating what must be one of the most characterful, spacious and flexible commercial galleries in London.

On two lofty floors, with a dramatic double-height entrance giving views up to the skylit roof, it strikes an apt balance between old and new, for ample areas of buff brickwork and evidence of its industrial past remain to counterpoint the white insertions.

As at the Fondation Cartier, there is enough room to install such large photographs as Demand's quite sparely, so maximising the impact they might have.

'What interests me above all is the world of media. Artists work as much with material generated by the media as with real experience, ' says Demand; and he seems perfectly content with this state of affairs. It is perhaps a little ironic that Caruso St John should present this preoccupation with the image to such advantage, when the materiality of Walsall Art Gallery so soundly refutes it (as architecture should). Peter St John remarks on the 'feeling' of Demand's photographs - 'interiors pregnant with atmosphere' - as well as the use of full-size models, which Caruso St John also opts for to convey the essence of a design.

Definitely in the spirit of Demand's work, in adding to 'material generated by the media', these shows have spawned still more images: quite faithful reproductions in the catalogue which Thames & Hudson will soon publish in an English edition.

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