Valenzuela began his career as a painter in the late 1990s. He produced drawings, public murals and private commissions while studying mechanical engineering – the closest available offering to fine arts – at Silliman University in Dumaguete, central Philippines. Traditional painting supplies, however, proved costly and difficult to source. Valenzuela quickly turned his hand to ceramics instead, capitalising on the natural resource of terracotta clay soil found locally in Daro, a northern barangay (suburb) of Dumaguete. Valenzuela would spend his days travelling up into the mountains where he would dig, process and prepare the clay, in study of the material. During this period, under the informal tutelage of visiting practitioners from Japan, he also learnt the skills of makeshift kiln building, wood firing and pit firing – an early kiln-less technique where clay is baked in an open fire dug into the ground.

Although his practice wilfully resists categorisation, ceramics has come to be an enduring medium for Valenzuela. Over the past two decades, it has functioned as a linchpin to his wider installations – a practice combining elements of painting, drawing, sculpture, video, found objects, even street art. When using clay, Valenzuela says, “you make a friend and an enemy.”[1] It begins its life as a malleable, soft material which, once dried then fired at high temperatures, vitrifies into ceramic. This elemental alchemy – where fire transforms earth – makes it an ideal medium for Valenzuela, particularly in his explorations of control, conflict, fragility and resilience. “There are a lot of challenges in ceramics… it is part of the struggle. You encounter breakages, works crack, they can explode [in the kiln]; it is the perfect material for conflict.”[2]

The unique properties of clay also give rise to Valenzuela’s distinct ceramic forms. Inanimate objects are hybridised or seen to amalgamate with human and animal body parts. A rubber duck morphs into a car tyre; a pig’s ear coddles a human ear; hooked fingers become horns, noses, beaks and tails. Clay often dictates the form of these shapeshifters. “Sometimes, clay moves by itself. It will tell you, it will guide you to go this way or that… Clay is alive.”[3]

For Valenzuela, hybridity is not just a material approach but a conceptual tactic, too. Throughout Filipino art history, the hybrid has come to be an important metaphor. Many artists have used it to address violent, ongoing histories of Spanish and American colonisation and occupation, as well as forced migration, and the resulting challenges to their cultural identity or sense of belonging. As a result, the hybrid embodies transition and deformity, adaptation and resilience. Valenzuela’s part-animal, part-human bust Regrets I’ve had a few (2020) explores this idea. Not only is the figure a mutant – a portrait of a creature between states – but it also embodies the categorical freedom of the hybrid. The defaced man, with hair like a rooster’s cockerel, is crafted to be neither one thing nor another, and yet recognisably both.

Valenzuela is deeply interested in the politics of space. He articulates space through his installation practice, using combinations of mediums and objects to highlight the spatial tensions of a site. He makes use of available surfaces – the floor, walls, ceiling, corners, any pre-existing architecture, even outdoor settings or the street – as well as builds free-standing sculptural structures to support individual works. This practice has emerged partially to circumvent the traditions of ceramics, given its long historical association with vessels and functional objects. But, it also describes Valenzuela’s interest in concepts of territory and crossing boundaries.

[1] Mark Valenzuela, in conversation with author, 22 April, 2021. [2] Mark Valenzuela, unpublished interview by Belinda Howden, video recording by Thomas Smeets, Adelaide, 12 June, 2021, 8:33.[3] Ibid, 18:23.

The creatures populating some of Valenzuela’s installations are a combination of animals, inanimate objects and human body parts. Make a list of all the things you recognise. Compare your observations with others in your class.

Animists believe inanimate objects, rocks, trees, weather systems, places, even some words are considered alive and possess a soul. Think of a non-living thing which you find interesting. Imagine this object were alive. What would it be like? Would it be friendly or scary? What other characteristics does it have?

Look at Valenzuela’s 2007 terracotta installation Camouflage. This work was among one of his earliest solo exhibitions and took place in Galleria Duemila, a contemporary art gallery in the capital city of Manila. Choose a single ceramic piece in Valenzuela's installation Once bitten, twice shy. How is it the same or different. Describe the changes in form or material.

Research how visual artists have used their art as a way of protesting against social and political unrest in the last 50 years, in the Philippines, in Australia, and throughout the world. In some instances, artists have been imprisoned for challenging those in power. Research a political artist or arts collective and create a work of art that commemorates their life or achievements.

Mark Valenzuela, Philippines, born 1980, Aquarium, 2011, Manila, terracotta, wood, dimensions variable; © Mark Valenzuela.

Create a work using clay that combines a body part, an animal or plant and your favourite food or toy. Consider creating seamless joins to ensure your new creature appears surreal.

Installation art is a combination of works of art designed for a specific space or time period. Create a class installation using works of art made by each student that represent something who they are, their values, their strengths or cultural background. Select a place within the school or classroom where this work can remain for the term.

Animists believe that inanimate objects, rocks, trees, weather systems, places, even some words, are considered alive and possess a soul. Write a poem about a non-living thing which you find interesting. Imagine it is alive and you are describing their personality and characteristics to someone else.

Research how visual artists have used their art as a way of protesting against social and political unrest in the last 50 years, in the Philippines, in Australia, and throughout the world. In some instances, artists have been imprisoned for challenging those in power. Research a political artist or arts collective and create a work of art that commemorates their life or achievements.

Compare other contemporary ceramic artists’ work, including work made by Valenzuela to work made by Australian artists in the 20th century such as Merric Boyd, Gladys Reynell and John Perceval. How does their approach to concept and materiality differ?

The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.

This education resource has been developed in collaboration with ACE Open and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Written by Belinda Howden with contributions from Louise Dunn, Kylie Neagle and Dr. Lisa Slade.