You might call being an artist Dara Friedman's fated vocation. At the age of 20, she happened into the company of Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka and honed her vision and craft while working under him. On a visit to Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts — which she calls the cheap side door to getting into a European art school — avant-garde artist Hermann Nitsch suggested she call his friend Kubelka and gave her his home number.
Friedman didn't know anything about him. After a phone call, he agreed to let her attend one of his classes in Vienna in which they'd be watching films for two months. She never even applied to art school, just turned up, and he gave her a roll of film. She shot Dara 1, a simple art video in which she filmed herself waking up. When Kubelka saw it, he said, "You can stay."
Since then, Friedman, 49, has had an illustrious career, with writeups in the New York Times and Art in America and shows at galleries and museums around the world. She lives in South Florida with her husband Mark Handforth, also a prominent artist, and two high-school-aged daughters who she says are also great artists. "They're really amazing," she says of her kids. "They're so helpful, and they really know what's good. If anybody encouraged me ever, they encouraged me. I really value their opinions."
Pérez Art Museum Miami is also on Team Dara. Her upcoming solo exhibition, "Perfect Stranger," will be on display at PAMM November 3 through Art Basel and into March 2018, marking the first midcareer survey of Friedman's work and also her largest presentation. The show fills two immense galleries broken into five spaces with no walls, just various colored velvet curtains. She says it's like "walking into a theater space, the theater of your mind." Visitors can peep the cityscape while watching dancers perform during planned accompanying performances.
"The show is sort of like a universe of work. There are 17 planets you can go to. Every planet is great. When you do see a work, commit yourself to it and really feel it," she asks of viewers. "I want people to turn up receiving the work."
Friedman grew up between two worlds: Germany, where she was born, and West Palm Beach. She calls her father "a Jewish dentist from Brooklyn and a Germanophile"; her mother, she says, was the prettiest girl in her German town. For the artist, a tension existed between her more intellectual European birthplace and sunny South Florida, one that now reflects in her work. She says West Palm has a lot of "physical intelligence — it was a place where people were really physical and clear, but not verbal, so you communicate through seeing and knowing who has seen you see." Growing up there, she says, made her conscious of how people can be articulate without speaking.
A dancer herself, Friedman comes to film through dance, much like the famed ethnographer and filmmaker Maya Deren, whom she calls her "spiritual artistic ancestor... I have a huge godmotherly affinity for her, Kenneth Anger, and Jack Smith and that generation." That admiration for and connection and dedication to experimentation are apparent in her highly emotional work. She often delves into bodily experiences and hires talents such as dancers and musicians to explore the boundaries between public and private, self and other. Meticulous with her craft, intentions, and story lines, she still appeals to the viewer in an intensely sensual way.
"Dara's work is totally unique," says PAMM's René Morales, who curated the show. "She takes up the rigorously experimental tradition of structural filmmaking and updates it with new ideas and effects that feel utterly fresh and that are always extremely emotionally affecting. The imagery in her films is dazzlingly rich, and her work has an almost visceral effect on viewers."
Friedman's film Ishmael and the Well of Ancient Mysteries, about a Miami man, Ishmael Bermudez, who lives on a valuable plot in Brickell he believes holds archaeological remains, screened at Art Basel Miami Beach 2014. "I got really jazzed," she says of the man and the connection to the Miami Circle, the archaeological site in that area. She sent information about it to Morales, who later that year unexpectedly offered her the show at PAMM. Friedman calls it "a really wonderful gift."
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Though Ishmael didn't make it into "Perfect Stranger," Morales and Friedman are considering screening it alongside a BBC documentary about the Miami Circle in January. "I want to do programming around that — pull back the curtain on the sort of archaeological significance of what's right downtown."
She has collaborated with indigenous communities for multiple works exploring their cultures. "It's kind of mind-blowing in terms of an activist element. Native cultures are everywhere. We're blind to them; we don't see them. It's like racism and inequality: That switch hasn't been turned on, but once you turn on the switch, you see it everywhere. Ishmael was helpful in doing that. You see where we come from and what we're doing with it. It's like mental infrastructure that's getting built," she explains.
At the time Morales approached her about the show, Friedman was working on Mother Drum, a film projected across three screens featuring indigenous performers. "I was really interested in ritual," she says. "There's all this talk about how important ritual is, and I wanted to know why and to feel it and experience it myself. I didn't want secondhand knowledge." She goes out into the field, explores experiences, finds their importance — in this case, of prayer and ritual — filters it through her perspective, and offers it to audiences. The performers might be strangers to you, but within Friedman's work, they become the perfect strangers.
Dara Friedman: "Perfect Stranger." Friday, November 3, through Sunday, March 4, 2018, at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org. Admission costs cost $16 for adults and $12 for seniors, students, and youth ages 7 to 18; members, children under 6, and active U.S. military get in free.