A pain in the arts

Tony Kaye fancies himself as an art terrorist. Dominic Cavendish has his doubts
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"in the history of art this will be an historical moment," says Tony Kaye, frowning into the viewfinder of his Pentax just after noon on Saturday 13 May 1995. "It has to be because you're writing about it." Through his viewfinder, he can see his work of art: a black, plastic board, 9ft high, 13ft wide, bearing two words, one above the other, in white: "WINKY WANKY". Click goes Tony's camera. Click. Click.

Does he snap away so fast because he is conscious of the transience of life and art? Not really. He does so because he has just erected his work outside the South London Art Gallery, Peckham. He's very proud of it. It's a "gift" to the gallery, an "art terrorist" extension to the cutting- edge exhibition Minky Manky - due to open for the last time in two hours. Unfortunately, galleries can be horribly ungrateful, so the work's immortal essence must quickly be preserved at all costs.

If fame has a price, then Tony Kaye can pay it. That's one advantage of earning millions as a commercials director before launching your career as an artist at the age of 42. Two weeks ago, a crane lowered A Void Something - his 20ft by 12ft photo of people waiting for a lecture on Yves Klein - against a wall of the Hayward Gallery. Later that weekend, he chains a blown-up copy of a letter from Nicholas Snowman, Chief Executive of the South Bank, asking him to remove the work, to the railings of the Tate Gallery. Today, the black cab sitting patiently on Peckham Road, plus the half-dozen young, pouting designers hired to truck in Something Else, together with the rep from his PR agency, all signal that Tony Kaye's battle to be taken seriously as an artist has only just begun.

He's used to skirmishes, is Tony. He successfully sued Saatchi's after being sacked for going pounds 700,000 over budget on the World's Favourite Airline ad. As the man responsible for the arty Dunlop commercial (S&M images, Velvet Underground soundtrack, 38 miles of film, lots of awards) he also knows it doesn't matter what you say, so long as you say it with conviction. It doesn't help, however, if you have a slight stutter and can't pronounce your r's.

"I think this is better than Wachel Whiteread's House," he says and fixes me with a steady, unblinking stare. Over the course of the next hour, his assessment oscillates without warning. One minute it's "a conceptual doodle", "a silly pun", the next it's "very funny, I'd like it to win the Turner prize, it must be worth at least pounds 15,000". He giggles to himself. "I see myself as the British version of Andy Warhol."

By contrast, the views of members of the public are surprisingly consistent. With the exception of a passing adman, enthusiasm is thin on the ground. "It looks ridiculous," is all one 78-year-old Peckham pensioner can be bothered to offer. Artist Nicole Polonski, who also works with text, has this to say: "By making the naughtiness in Minky Manky explicit, he has removed the humour and childishness of it - it's even less clever than the original."

"It's an act of litter," is the conclusion arrived at by the gallery caretaker as he starts to unscrew the base. "I'm personally pissed off that I have to come in here on my day off to remove something so childish by an obvious publicity- seeker." "Now hold on," says Tony, grinning manically, clicking away. "Why?"

- "You're using an offensive word. You're saying the show is no good"

- "That's your interpretation."

- "You've dumped it on council property. I'm dismantling it."

- "I thought you guys would be more forward-thinking."

- "It's not art, it's rubbish."

- "It's a gift."

- "Then we can do what we like with it."

- "Ah, but English law is a very funny thing," says Tony Kaye mysteriously.

There is the vague threat of physical violence in the air. The local police appear baffled, and ask him to remove the work. Tony Kaye, improvising now, says he is very upset. "I've arrived as an artist, and they can't seem to deal with that." He seems as impervious to criticism as his designer- label jacket is to the drops of rain that are starting to fall. "I've got it. I've got it. How can you object to the word wanky when you've got a swastika in there?" (Gilbert and George's Human Bondage No 5). There's a chorus of "That's a Hindu good luck symbol". Kaye vanishes.

Five minutes later, he's back, defiant, promising more acts of art terrorism in the weeks to come. "I don't want my work on display near a swastika. That's why I'm withdrawing it." Tony Kaye may not be an artist, but at least he is true to himself. So it's just a publicity stunt, I say. "I don't know what publicity stunt means," comes the reply. Sure.