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Daniel Weber

In many ways, it was unfitting for me to interview Daniel Weber over Zoom – although I could have done no differently, as we spoke through the thicket of Sydney’s 2021 lockdowns. Though it’s fraught and usually presumptuous for a writer to say what an artist’s work is “about,” one thing I do feel comfortable suggesting that Weber’s work turns over intently is the notion of connection. That we were unable to share a space, in order to connect on the visceral, extra-rational level which he explores in his work, was a shame, but stories made their way along the 5G nevertheless. Following in Weber’s own spirit, then, I want to draw a few connections here between his life and his thinking across the continents, disciplines, and methods he’s traversed.

By his own account, Weber grew up “in the midst of the plains of Minnesota, in a small town of about 30,000 people . . . and the only escape was the library.” As he tells me, “I moved to a larger city when I was sixteen, and became aware of all of these narratives that weren’t there before.” These stories by which Weber’s early life was enchanted were many, and ruthlessly wide-ranging. While he developed an early interest in Japanese culture and history in the aftermath of the Korean War, he also “read [Kant’s] Critique of Pure Reason, which I didn’t understand at all.” 

Taking the long historical view that this early reading allowed, Weber’s creative and other professional practices push back against many of the ideas bequeathed to us by socio-economic  – if not always artistic – modernity. He holds closely the belief that “there is something essential in human creativity which cannot be commercialised.” When I ask if he is hopeful that we can still meaningfully connect to this essential, and essentially anticapitalist “something” in a contemporary context, he replies that “I don’t use the word ‘hope,’ because ‘hope’ means that there is an outcome that one wants or prefers, and that too is part of modernism – outcomes, hopefulness, direction. I come more from the visceral: what is your gut response to a great movie, or some two-dimensional art, a piece of sculpture, or of philosophy?”

Weber’s early creative work was situated largely in the theatre. Through the middle decades twentieth century, he was also a lighting director for Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead; “the ‘60s were that kind of time, and I had a great time there,” he says. As he recounts it, though, this breathless period found a racing halt. He recalls emerging from a performance with The Living Theatre – the oldest experimental theatre group in the US – at 2:00 a.m. one day in 1968, buzzing after a participatory performance of Frankenstein. The day’s headlines announced Nixon’s election victory. “That was it,” he says – “the ‘60s were over. We failed, we didn’t change.” There is a long pause when I ask what exactly he attributes this failure to, before the monosyllabic answer arrives: “fear.” 

After this period in the theatre followed a career in medicine. Over the following decades, study of non-Western medial practices was to become one of the most enduring components of Weber’s working life. To him, the ways of thinking and of caring that Eastern practices offer make possible a way of doing medicine which resists commodification, profit-extraction, and an outcomes-driven model which Weber calls, for short, “modernist.” Leading the medical organisation Panaxea International, he now lectures on botanical medicine and psychophysical disease, and contributed to the first English-language database on Chinese herbal medicine, which was also his PhD project. Having sent some fifty years focussed on this medical work, it is only in the last three years that Weber has returned to art-making.

Speaking about artistic and other modernisms, we arrive at Durer. Weber identifies Durer as first artist to have a “trademark” – that is, to sign their work. Prior to Durer, by Weber’s analysis, “art used to be something which connected us to the spiritual, and artists didn’t sign their work. They offered their works as ways in which we could connect ourselves to the spiritual . . . and I think in this [shift] we have the failure of modernism: we need to return to some [spiritual] quality, and I think the creative has always tried to do that, to bring us back.” 

A return to certain qualities of thought and feeling, rather than to a prescribed content, or one singular “lesson,” is a useful way of framing Weber’s works for his upcoming show, ESSE, at Sydney’s Wellington Gallery. The title of the exhibition gestures to the inalienable, incorruptible parts of our humanity, but quite what these parts contain is beside the point of the art objects themselves. Many of the works employ a strategy of abstraction, taking small, dense cues from visual art and literature as their formal launching points. Take, for example, A Rose Grows, G. Stein, 2021, which is as much concerned with the haptic behaviour of its inky materials both on the paper and the eye as it is with its poetic reference – to Gertrude Stein no less, who is usually billed as a crucial and crucially modernist writer. Weber is no absolutist. Pulling apart our usual understandings of ourselves, and our histories, is part of the artist’s work of abstraction. “My paintings,” he says, “are trying to deconstruct some of the ways that we see things. I might deconstruct [modern artists’ work] simply by seeing a swipe of colour and a sweep in that direction.” 

“What I do in my creative work is to show people a story that is inherently there,” Weber tells me. This feels apposite. The stories were already there, after all, for him as a child seeking a breadth and depth of experience in the library – and have been played through in many registers across his lives in the theatre, the academy, medicine, and even the family. But what’s all this storytelling for, in the end? Weber has an answer characteristically focussed on process, rather than outcome: “I believe we are in a cultural crisis, and that we need the creative in all of us to smoothen the way. If I can be part of that, then I’m happy.”

EXHIBITION
ESSE 
18 November – 2 December 2021
The Wellington Gallery, Sydney

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