The staff of the Australia Council went out on strike yesterday. Were you stopped in the street by agitated artists in paint-spattered overalls? Did a thousand rehearsal rooms fall silent around the nation? Sadly no.

Given the penurious circumstances of most working artists in this country, it’s not surprising that the over-worked and under-paid arts officers in Surry Hills didn’t strike a chord with the rest of the creative workforce. But in fact, the Australia Council staff’s claims are valid — with 20% of the workforce disappearing in recent budgets, OzCo staff are now struggling to adequately deliver essential services like grant assessments.

But all is not lost. Australia’s artists are getting on with their creativity, and, as this year’s Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale shows, the Australia Council delivers important outcomes with its tiny budget. Despite Peter Garrett inability to champion the value of Australia’s cultural industries to the rest of his government (did you know the cultural industries employ twice as many Australians as the mining and metallurgy sector?), there’s a lot to be optimistic about in the Australian arts just now.

The Australian Pavilion at Venice shows why. Headlining the pavilion is new media wunderkind Shawn Gladwell. Gladwell’s uncanny skating and BMX videos, cunningly edited and presented eerily out-of-time, have made him one of the hottest young artists working in the country today. Gladwell was invited by Robert Storr to the last Venice in 2007 and generated a lot of interest; this year’s Venice presentation apparently draws its inspiration from George Miller’s Mad Max films and has been described as a homage to Australian cinema and the sublime landscapes of our desert interior. Car-surfing also features.

Also at Venice are installation artists Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro. Healy and Cordeiro are known for their witty but also provocative gallery installations that riff off themes of the built environment and our throwaway society; one of their best-known works was 2006’s Self Storage which collected the artists’ entire belongings and packed them into a miniature frame house at the Art Gallery of NSW. The widely acclaimed work marked them as perhaps the true inheritors of a long-running theme in Australian art stretching back through Howard Arkley and Robin Boyd: the artistic exploration of the Great Australian Dream.

Joining Healy and Cordeiro is indigenous artist Vernon Ah Kee, whose bold but exquisite charcoal drawings of black Australians were amongst the stand-out works at last year’s Sydney Biennale. Ah Kee’s portraits of family members stare back at the viewer with sometimes unnerving intensity, a symbolic reflection of the highly political stance of their depicter. It’s a rare combination of technical beauty and substantive subject matter; as he told The Australian’s Rosemary Sorensen last year, “a lot of the problem this country has with Aboriginal people is that it struggles to see Aboriginal people as fully human.”

Like Healy and Cordeiro, Ah Kee’s beautifully crafted artworks are perfect examples of a country that “still makes things.” Perhaps Peter Garrett should use that line with Kevin Rudd and Kim Carr.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, the CPSU told Crikey that industrial action at the Australia Council is set to continue.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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