IngridMwangiRobertHutter fleshes out the meaning of self

Spelman exhibit offers a crash course in race, nationality, sexuality, power and powerlessness

If you're willing to give yourself over to it, the new exhibition at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art will envelop and transport you as completely as traveling to some distant land. In this case the destination is the shocking terrain of two artists' unruly imaginations. IngridMwangiRobertHutter: Constant Triumph comes from the internationally known, Germany-based husband-and-wife team of Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter, a couple so creatively intertwined that their inseparable names crowd centipede-like together in the title of their show.

Constant Triumph is a crash course in issues of race, nationality, sexuality, power and powerlessness. The artists have explored these themes over the course of their careers through photography, installation, video and performance art. It's often difficult and opaque work. Dwelling on states of emotional agitation, and featuring nudity, bodily injury, and an exploration of racial politics, the show is especially uncomfortable when experienced next to a stranger in the gallery. But it's well worth the discomfort.

At the core of the exhibition is flesh: drawn on with markers, cut into with razors or covered in mud. Though our bodies often seem to define us, the beauty of the artists' work is in showing the body as merely a casing and canvas for the artists' and other people's projections. In the video work "Neger Don't Call Me," Mwangi explores that fissure between exterior and interior. "Neger Don't Call Me" shows the artist wrapping her hair around her face like a bandit's mask or letting her hair unfurl. The images are juxtaposed with her voice-over thoughts about what it means to be viewed in terms of a racial stereotype. There is what people see when they look at her: a black woman. And then there is what she is: a Kenya-born, German-raised biracial woman with a white European husband whose artwork explores the fluidity of self. Try putting that in a box on a census form.

In the 15-minute video/endurance piece "Conscious of the Wall," a black man (Kenyan artist Jimmy Ogonga) carves tally marks onto Hutter's white flesh with a tattoo needle. It's a reversal of the usual scenario of master and slave that can suggest white penance for racial guilt over the historical realities of slavery and colonialism. It's also the kind of gory, masochistic, uncomfortable work — made more so by the whirring of the tattoo needle ricocheting around the gallery — that tends to make conservative congressmen pop a vein.

There seems to be little the artists won't tackle. In "Splayed," Mwangi treats the detachment of self and body with three video screens: one of her head shaved to suggest Joan of Arc, and the other two screens showing her outstretched arms extended in a Christ-like posture as she has the tender flesh of her wrists cut to form the words "Monogamous" and "Polygamy." In the comparably grueling "The Cage," Hutter offers up his naked chest to the crowds in Johannesburg's streets who use markers to defile his flesh with both insults and affirmations.

Constant Triumph presents the sanctification of artists, of people pushing themselves to their limits, enduring a great deal in pursuit of deeper truths. The trials and tribulations Mwangi and Hutter undergo can inspire anxiety, sadness, enlightenment and fear. But in an age when people often play it safe, that proximity to risk-taking can be thrilling to experience.

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