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On Exhibit: sanitized for your protection

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It seems the more technologically advanced we become, the more we covet the streamlined body--fat-free, hairless, and odorless. It makes you wonder when we'll amputate our very limbs. To what lengths will we go to make the flagrant fragrant? Must we be hoary before we give in to being hairy?

These are among the questions raised by Girl Germs, an installation by artists Annie West and Mary Del Monico opening Friday at Randolph Street Gallery. The exhibit simulates the private domain of the bathroom, where the transformation from louse to lynx takes place. The viewer will feel right at home among the towel dispensers, soap dishes, and Kleenex boxes, and will doubtless have an opportunity to peek into the hostess's medicine cabinet. But the artists say that sanitary products have made the body a public forum, magnifying the cultural abhorrence of "filth" associated with bodily functions and the desire to achieve "purity" through the use of depilatories, deodorants, and douches.

Former Chicagoan West met Del Monico nearly three years ago in a program sponsored by the Whitney Museum of American Art. They discovered their work shared the theme of hygiene, specifically a concern with how standards of cleanliness and purification relate to issues of gender, race, and class. West looks at the ways consumer products are packaged and how language is chosen to market them. She alters familiar products to reveal how they foster a fear of contagion and instill broad associations between filth and moral inferiority. Del Monico examines how cultural messages about hygiene alienate people from their bodies.

The two decided to pair their perspectives in Girl Germs, and eventually they took their project on the road, remodeling the installation to fit different gallery spaces and to confront the cultural implications of where it was being exhibited. "It's an evolving piece," explains Del Monico. "We're constantly reassessing, refining, retuning."

Although Del Monico and West are reluctant to give away too many secrets about the Chicago incarnation of Girl Germs, past installments have found them dressed in lab coats and pink gloves, periodically cleaning the exhibition room. They will only say that the installation at Randolph Street will inhabit two rooms and all of the senses. Because of its proximity to the gallery's lavatory, the installation will replicate the sterile, industrial atmosphere of the public potty, rendering absurd the polite misnomer "rest" room. West says the shiny institutional atmosphere is a "metaphor for control" and the consumer culture's usurpation of individual authority.

Del Monico says the Chicago show will be particularly schnoz-centered, because smell "signals different emotive responses and conjures up memory in very elusive ways." The artists also promise viewers an opportunity to take away a souvenir, presumably not on one's shoe.

Girl Germs opens tonight, Friday, with a free reception from 6 to 8 at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee. It will remain on view through February 18. Gallery hours are noon to 6 Tuesday through Saturday. Call 666-7737 for more.

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