Like the Bible, James and Jerome’s lecture/performance Ink begins with its own making-of. The duo, née Jerome Ellis and James Harrison Monaco, have been close friends for more than a decade, rarely out of each other’s company—but Ink was born from separation. Sharing art-museum images kept the two connected when one of them was studying in Brazil or Spain, and with Ink they attempt to build a similar link with artists and artisans of the past. It’s a banality to say that cultural production unites generations; James and Jerome largely sidestep such triteness by focusing as much on the materiality of art as the art itself. For them, art is erotic, meant to be felt in the body, not respectfully admired from a distance.
Ink, presented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sacerdote Lecture Hall as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival, is a slide show with music. Jerome, the hushed tour guide measuring each word, and James, the excitable grad student who taught your Intro to Art History course, perform a tag-team exegesis on several centuries’ worth of art objects, ranging from breastplates, ritual images, calligraphy, and bowls to a claviorganum: an Early Modern combination string instrument and organ. But for them, a work like Rembrandt’s Flora is noteworthy less for the face of its supposed subject than for the natural materials that make up the paints that created that face, materials whose “essence and memory” live on much longer than the subject. Like the best art lectures, Ink takes advantage of the high definition permitted by contemporary projection technologies to bring us into intimate proximity with the images; the ornate sixteenth-century insignia of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent benefits the most from this close reading.
None of the pieces examined in the show (all handily catalogued in the program, which also indicates where to locate the pieces in the museum) are canonical. In fact, except for the Rembrandt, hardly anything we see could be considered “Western.” James and Jerome encourage the audience to see through the art objects to the people who made them, as a way of reminding us that “[w]e need to use our eyes to see and our ears to hear those beings we have ignored,” as Jerome’s program note exhorts. Yet the show also acknowledges the difficulty, if not impossibility, of communication when meaning is constantly deferred. “Ink is a garment for word, as word is a garment for meaning,” James tells us.
And sometimes the very means of communication break down, as with Jerome’s stutter. Far from trying to hide or camouflage his disability, Jerome makes it the show’s fulcrum, “liberating the voice and thus the body.” Sometimes this liberation is literal: his voice gets looped and mixed with the electronic, semi-improvised compositions. Other times his stutter butts up against the minimalist repetitions of the music and we see, in stark detail, how language and biology can fail. This failure becomes productive, though. When spoken word isn’t enough, music and writing step in. When they fall short, words return. Jerome doesn’t stutter when he writes or plays music, but nor does he when he delivers a set of mysterious, beautiful non-sequiturs: “Break my fingers that I may not touch you.” “Build me a prison that I may finally have a home.” What emerges is a picture not of endlessly fractured communication but of human creativity bridging the gaps.
Directors Rachel Chavkin and Annie Tippe have corralled the ideas bouncing around like free radicals into an evening that favors stillness over bombast, allowing the material and the duo’s friendship to anchor the proceedings. Though more lecture than performance, the evening passes much more pleasantly than the average undergrad seminar, due largely to James and Jerome’s unforced chemistry. There are a few missteps, including an odd impromptu section in the middle that momentarily derails the play’s energy, and a series of axioms such as “The (musical) score is a seismograph of another planet’s tremors,” and “Manuscript illumination is the pleasure of dressing,” presented with an earnestness that almost tips toward parody. Additionally, near the end of the night, Jerome dismisses James, saying he wants to finish alone. This may be Jerome claiming sole authorship of his story and returning the show to the conditions of its conception, but after an evening dedicated to the pair’s inseparability, it rings dishonest. If the evening doesn’t thrill, it does at least present itself with a clear and confident gaze, encouraging each of us to think more deeply about where and how we direct our own.