The Art of the Aluminum Can

I may not like the taste of Red Bull, but I've got to give them props for clever marketing. The first (and only) time I've ever tasted their energy drink was in a very unexpected place—on my favorite hiking trail the mountains of northern Vermont, a few years ago. I've been there hundreds of times in my life, and it's usually fairly deserted, so imagine my surprise when a guy decked out in Red Bull gear suddenly appeared in front of me.

"Need some energy?" he asked. Before I could answer (actually, I was stunned speechless), he pulled a can out of the soft-sided cooler slung around his neck, thrust it into my hand with a perky smile, and hiked on down the trail.

Since caffeine can be dehydrating, it's pretty much the last thing I want to drink while exercising. I finally cracked open the can when I got back to my car a few hours later...and after a few sips, decided it was pretty much the last thing I wanted to drink under any circumstances. (To be fair, it probably tastes better cold, and I don't like soda anyway, so I was a tough sell.) I prefer my caffeine in the form of a good cappuccino.

Last night, I got another taste of the company's marketing genius when I stopped by the opening reception for Red Bull's "Art of Can" exhibition at DC's Union Station. They'd managed to transform the train station's main hall into a nightclub-like environment, complete with multiple bars, colored spotlights, a DJ and a gaggle of young women in miniskirts and logoed shirts (whose main purpose appeared to be asking guests, "Are you having fun?").

The art exhibit consisted of 56 pieces by artists in the United States and a dozen other countries, in media that ranged from sculpture to paint to glassblowing. The only requirement of the contest was for artists to "utilize the blue-and-silver can literally or simply as inspiration," according to the catalog. Most of the pieces involved actual cans, cut and shaped into other forms: A knight, a parrot; a rescue dog; a skull; a shark; a hula dancer; a ball cap; and of course, several bulls. Weirdly, two artists both decided to shape the cans into cigarette boxes (at least one of them understood the irony, titling the piece: "One Addiction Deserves Another").

I felt sad for the 25-year-old student who used the cans to build a cute little faux-robot with a bouquet of flowers in his hand and a "love meter" on his chest. The plaque by the work stated that she "was inspired by the idea of having a boyfriend who genuinely cares about her."

And I couldn't help but chuckle at the passive-aggressive tone in the statement accompanying another piece, which featured stuffed bulls with wings, dangling from some sort of musical mobile. This was apparently the artist's response to a critic's negative review of his entry in an previous "Art of Can" exhibition. The artist "may not have a lot of formal training," the statement explained, "but at least he can appreciate a work of art that someone took the time to make."

I left feeling impressed with the artists' hard work and creativity, and secretly proud of myself for avoiding the actual product the event was intended to sell. And then I opened the "press kit," which was packaged in a cardboard tube... darn it, I should have known!

The "Art of Can" exhibit will be on display at Union Station, free and open to the public, through October 19.

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