Art & Living September 2011
I met Frank Otto, artist, musician and entrepreneur, in a chic oceanside Santa Monica hotel five years ago, but his two sides were not immediately apparent. Behind his aging youthful rock star good looks and high energy, a more serious side illuminated in strands of conversation played against the shadows of late afternoon.
A book of photographs beckoned invitingly on his hotel room table. The photographs in the book offered glimpses of a 260-square-meter painting The Little Mermaid that he painted on the floor of an abandoned factory. The collage of images retells the story of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale.
The painting was composed in front of running cameras while live music played backwards simultaneously and then run through a digital restoration process. The fairytale is told in exquisite shades of vibrant blue. The turquoise expanses of ocean feature a beautiful mermaid whose face appears without detail, framed by long locks of yellow hair.
Otto, inspired by the tale of the mermaid’s transformation, later expanded upon this work, calling it “a transformation, a stop on a trip to the world of the new media.” Although separated from the Andersen fairy tale by centuries, Frank was interested in the story’s subtle meanings about relationships. “Men and women… relationships… are doomed to failure. A woman typically gives her heart to one man, but when she shuns a man — that is when he finds her most desirable,” Otto explains.
The anguished expressions on the mermaid’s face reflect those thoughts but also a deeper troubled side of Otto. He grew up in post–World War II Germany, a country pervaded by an aura of joyless silent repression, flattened and weighted with unspeakable collective guilt.
Otto trained in art restoration at the world-famous Museum of Art and Trade in Hamburg but then studied fine art under Harald Duwe. Duwe was a great master of critical realism, a form of realism that exposes the shabby, ugly, or ordinary aspects of reality.
While he later rebelled against his master, he learned precision of color and tone from Duwe. From his observations of human nature, he learned to express more than photographic truth. “I am able to see through people — to their inner essence — and what I see is not beautiful,” says Otto, his fashionably scrubby denim jacket playing off his slateblue eyes.
In 2000, Otto turned to more upbeat, large-scale multi-media projects. His video art project Trip took five years to create. It consists of four 74-minute films shot in several continents by 33 filmmakers with 12 musicians performing live who interpreted a single musical composition in totally different ways and set their improvised images to a progressive rock song track — a multimedia extravaganza.
Ultimately, Trip, reminiscent of a psychedelic “trip,” is a celebration of creativity.
Launching on the eve of the new millennium, it played continuously and internationally, at the Cannes Film Festival, garnering awards at Silverlake Film Festival, selected as a 2008 finalist in Chicago’s Domefest awards. and will be performed next year at the Hamburg Planetarium.
Even if it seemed improbable five years ago, Otto now speaks with more pride and less sorrow, particularl about Germany. “I’m proud to live in a country with a memorial in front of the Parliament that reminds every politician on the way to work of the historic guilt of our nation.”
Otto also speaks of the work of artist Gunter Demnig — stumbling blocks in the pavement in front of the former homes of Jewish people who were deported during the holocaust. “Both are good ways to keep memories awake and learn from history.”
His commitment to humanitarian projects is a recipe for moving forward. In addition to founding several charities, he’s committed to developing and promoting unknown talent, including upand-coming musical performers including The Dreams, Compact Space, Wolfgang Michels, One Fine Day and Joachim Witt. He also gave money to young artists in South Central L.A.
With his commitment to the younger generation, Otto seems to have lost some profound emotional weight and moves kinetically ahead. A successful media entrepreneur, he’s establishing new business models on the Internet. He’s a pioneer in developing digital platforms for R&B on the radio and new technologies that bring music to cars, cruise ships and mobile phones. And as we speak, he’s at work on his latest artistic project, visualized music under the umbrella theme Synesthesia.