HE SANG KARAOKE AT THE D&AD. HE TRIED TO PARK HIS LINCOLN IN THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART. HE FLEW A HOMELESS MAN TO AN EXHIBITION IN SAN FRANCISCO. AND HE'S STILL MANAGED TO CRANK OUT SOME OF THE MOST TALKED ABOUT ADS ON EITHER SIDE OF THE ATLANTIC. THAT'S WHY TONY KAYE IS OUR CREATIVE PERSON OF THE YEAR
IN A CAREER MARKED BY A SUCCESSION OF WILD ANTICS, Tony Kaye has had a particularly productive year. First there was the President's Lecture at the D&AD in London, during which Kaye showed slides of his boyhood home, rambled on for close to three hours and wound up by singing a karaoke version of "My Way," dressed as a Hassid.
Not long after, he took to the stage at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to give a similar (if somewhat mercifully truncated) version of the D&AD monologue as part of the annual AICP Show presentation, where he went into great length discussing his efforts to get the museum administrators to agree to let him bring his Lincoln Continental into the MoMA lobby. Seems Kaye has turned the car, a big cruiser bearing California vanity plates-JEWISH CAR-and boasting an ominous array of cel phone antennae, into some kind of Dadaist piece of artistic expression, centering around a succession of absurd classified ads he placed in newspapers around the world offering it for sale for an ungodly sum in the millions.
MoMA officials wisely refused, of course, so Kaye had to settle for having a crane erect a huge banner bearing the word CONCEPTUAL on the street in front of the museum, where the perplexed but nevertheless respectful audience could see it as they left the building. Later he was seen photographing a semi-nude woman in front of the museum-again, another of his staged high jinks meant to provoke any number of reactions, certainly not the least of which is publicity.
"Hype art" is what Stefano Hatfield calls it. A top editor at the Brit ad trade Campaign, Hatfield has been witness to the growing number of stunts, larks and controversies that have surrounded Kaye this year. Not unsurprisingly, the 43-year-old director is also on a roll when it comes to his ad work, turning out some of the most visually inspired spots of his career.
Just what is he up to, one might ask? "Well, I'm trying to be an artist, you see, and that encompasses everything I do," Kaye says. And that includes advertising? "Oh, absolutely." While commercials have given Kaye plenty of opportunities to practice his form of art for attention's sake-he was at the center of another controversy in England when a bylined opinion piece in Campaign asked the question, "Is Tony Kaye Bad for Advertising?"-he's been just as committed to making waves in his creation of things that have little or no bearing on his commercials work. And sometimes he manages to commingle the worlds with marvelous absurdity.
Take the lost notebook. Stuffed with drawings and pictures, he left it in a Manhattan cab in August while working on the Prodigy campaign he shot for Cliff Freeman & Partners. "I thought, how can I turn this into a work of art?" he explains, so he placed classified ads in newspapers describing the book as being worth $14 million and offering a reward of a thousand dollars. Needless to say, the story somehow ended up on the evening news, a development that delights Kaye. Now he's got his art piece, consisting of framed copies of the ads and tape recordings of the outlandish crank calls he got in response to them.
Then there's his homeless man, Roger Powell. Kaye met him on Waterloo Bridge in London one morning and asked him if he could use him in an art exhibit. Powell now spends most of his time (he's got plenty of it) sitting quietly in the Tate Gallery, perched in the middle of a small tubular structure that Kaye constructed; this installation, as the director explains, is meant to call attention to the plight of the home- less. Recently, Powell was "exhibited" in front of San Francisco's newly opened Museum of Modern Art, and Kaye has had requests to "show" him in New Zealand and Canada.
Exploitation? Maybe. Kaye seems enormously amused when discussing him. "It's fantastic, really, like a movie," he says of Roger. "A guy wakes up on the bridge at 8 o'clock in the morning, and at 12:45 he becomes a work of art."
In spite of what critics like former Abbott Mead Vickers writer Tony Brignull, author of the Campaign screed, think of Kaye's penchant for self-indulgence and self-promotion, his Volvo "Twister" spot for AMV almost won the Grand Prix in Cannes this year. And while his best work has been for the European market, Kaye believes that the only reason he's been successful there has been because he's living in the U.S. "When I got here, it was a big culture shock, and I just didn't understand the way things work," he says. "But I was expecting that, and I knew I had to work through it. And I think it's made me better. My vision is so much wider since I've come here."
Among his more notable jobs this year are the "Success is a Mind Game" spots for Tag Heuer and BDDP in Paris and a gender-bending take on relationships for Guinness and O&M in London. There's also the Prodigy campaign, a stark anti-smoking PSA for Boston's Houston Effler Herstek Favat and an upcoming anti-heroin PSA for Drug Free America that promises to be another tour de excess.
Speaking of excess, Kaye's recently completed spot for Nina Ricci and agency Opera in Paris ranks up there with his Dunlop tire opus, albeit it's somewhat more lyrical in tone. Asked to explain this bizarre fantasy piece, Kaye says, "It's about a man going through some trauma or whatever, and this woman brings him peace, in a very kind of slightly surreal and odd way." That's putting it mildly. This is one spot that defies description.
On a more serious note, he's also nearing completion of what he calls his first documentary film, about no less charged a topic than abortion. He started it when he arrived in Los Angeles, and he says that while he didn't exactly set out to make a documentary, it's turned out to become one.
While it may seem that the last thing Kaye's expressionist style resembles is a documentary, the director begs to differ. "Actually, I'm a journalist," he says. "Most of the stuff I record in pictures, as opposed to words. I'm a journalist in pictures."