fallen angels: a conversation with marcus whale and athena thebus
The artists detail their brilliant collaborative performance 'Lucifer', which casts the ultimate fallen angel as a figure to be celebrated.
How much of life is spent moving between worship and rejection? We cast aside our admirers in pursuit of other lovers. We wield power over people who, in turn, wield their power over us. These are cyclical behaviours that leave us wanting.
Multidisciplinary artists Athena Thebus and Marcus Whale have spent the past few months seeking more constructive approaches to human devotion. At this year’s Sugar Mountain Festival the pair will perform Lucifer; a song cycle that reframes practices of worship through the narrative of the titular fallen angel. In an earlier incarnation of the performance, Whale paced through Carriageworks in a metres-long white garment, radiant and serene. This iteration of Lucifer, the pair say, is more intense and exacting to perform. With sculptural installations, trombones, drums and heavenly vocals, the piece attempts to conjure an alternate world where shame and failure create fresh opportunity. Hell is reimagined as a landscape where forsaken people can gather and worship anew.
Lucifer is regeneration set among smouldering brimstone and infernal fires. It is rebirth in darkness. It is also the work of two affectionate friends. Sitting in the kitchen of their Darlinghurst home, Athena and Marcus discuss the performance and its demonic inspiration.
I want to start by talking about Lucifer’s symbolic status as a queer icon. Where do you think that comes from? The fall from grace? The drama? The constructive anger?
Athena: It encompasses so much. Definitely the fall from grace and experience of forsakenness. Also Lucifer means “morning star” which I think we forget. He is so bright and stunning. He is God’s most beautiful angel and I love that—being the most beautiful but also being forsaken. It’s exactly how I feel. [Laughs]
Marcus: I love Lucifer being the morning star because it heralds the day, you know? Like, this darkness is soon to be over. And I think that imbues the symbolism of Lucifer with futurity, which is inherently queer. It’s also easy to look to Lucifer as iconically representative of potentiality—that type of dreaming before you wake up, where the line between what’s present and what’s imagined is most blurred.
Also finding potential in acts and behaviours that are perceived to be failures.
Marcus: Yeah. The main narrative that I get from the Biblical story is that, in order to build a new world or new vision, you need to come from a place of despondency. It needs to come from being unsatisfied with the way things are. And that’s why I think the morning star symbolism is so powerful. It’s not daytime yet—the light hasn’t yet dawned—but this is what heralds its arrival. This is a message from the future.
Athena: I also like the satanic vibes. [Laughs]
How did your performance piece Lucifer find itself on the Sugar Mountain lineup for 2018?
Athena: Well, we first did Lucifer I at Day for Night [Festival] in 2017.
Marcus: Which was a different performance. It had similar costumes but was in the context of Day for Night, which is a day-long party and set of performances. Our piece played out across the entire evening as the atmosphere gradually became more celebratory. We wanted to provide flashes of something quite angelic that was gone before you knew it. Whereas this new performance is something else.
Athena: This is a single twenty minute performance. Marcus has two drummers onstage and three trombonists on the mezzanine. This time it feels like we’re heralding the arrival of something new. It’s a more epic and intense piece.
Marcus: There’s also a sculptural element that Athena is currently working on. I’ll be performing atop a structure—
Athena: —A set of rocks.
Marcus: Lucifer and, at a stretch, other underworld figures from literature or mythology are often associated with the physicality of the earth, with being literally grounded. But Lucifer also alludes to the potential to rise again, out of the earth. I like having our Lucifer placed upon rocks, on an elevated level. It’s like he is about to take flight and bring us all into a Utopian future.
I’ve been watching you collaborate in the lead-up to both Day for Night and Sugar Mountain via your Instagram stories. I love the videos of you both walking around the studio space, trying on the costume and hauling its giant train around.
Athena: [Laughs] Yes!
Marcus: One thing I enjoy is that our ideas keep changing and developing. We’ll have a meeting and decide that it’ll be a certain way. And then a few weeks later Athena will tell me that it’s changed. Usually it takes me about 10 minutes to get on board and then I think it’s great.
Athena: You’ll have an adverse reaction but I keep pushing and then you ease into it.
Marcus: I’m a conservative person at heart. [Laughs] Because I’m risk-averse. And then Athena takes me to new places.
Athena: And Marcus just lifts the performance. I remember trying on the costume the first time and thinking, “Oh my god, this looks too bridal.” But then, in the space, you just transformed it into something beyond what I could have imagined.
Just a couple of Lucifers over here. Full of surprises.
Athena: I’m not really a Lucifer. I think Marcus is the perfect Lucifer.
Do you two collaborate quite seamlessly?
Athena: We have very similar approaches to friendship. We’re both so into devotion and talking about all of our desires. My most memorable conversations with Marcus have all been at home in our kitchen, talking about devotion in all of its forms. I think that’s where this work all started.
Marcus: We have a really similar sense of drama in trying to unpack how it feels to be in worship and to simultaneously be rejected.
Athena: I think you find it way easier to worship people than I do, which I find inspiring.
Marcus: Do I? I just have a really active imagination and I love projecting into the future with someone. I don’t know if that’s a type of worship. Maybe it’s worshipping the potential of the kernel from which a relationship is growing. It’s always like “I will do this for you” or “I will be there for you”, and in that action of making yourself available, you also make available the possibility of another world. That’s the crux of it for me.
Athena: You’ve really opened up my ideas about devotion—to just be more willing to be devoted.
And not in a strictly romantic sense.
Marcus: No. And I’m really given to the idea that desire is not about lacking something and wanting it. It’s actually a productive force or state of being. So rather than it being about consumption, taking it away from the capitalist model, it’s more a way of feeling or an atmosphere. It’s less solid but it also has more potential. And that’s what this work is about in some ways—making real that fantasy. We’re acting out the world that we wish was real.
Athena: What’s the name of the third song in Lucifer?
Marcus: Indivisible. Wait—should we talk about the music?
Marcus: Even though I’m dressed up as Lucifer throughout the performance, none of the songs actually talk about being Lucifer. They’re all about trying to find people and worlds away from God, and also reckoning with the worship of God. It’s conflicted.
Athena: Like, “I have all this desire and I don’t know where to put it.”
Marcus: The performance contains four songs. The first two discuss opening yourself up to an alternative vision of the world and invoking Hell as an alternative space where forsaken people can congregate and create anew. The third song is about worship in general; I wrote it while thinking about how I could confuse all of those figures of desire and worship—God, Satan, or someone that I’m into—and mix them all up, and then see what the essential essence of that might be. What I got from that was the desire to be like someone, or to be fused with them. And that’s the way shame operates too—“I want to be like you but I can’t be like you.” The final song makes real all of that ideation and delivers us through a portal into that alternative space, at the edge of the new morning. It literally references the moment before the sun hits and how it feels to be so close to being reborn.
And what happens to that shame?
Athena: I think shame can be really productive. You have to find the areas where you have shame, or things that you feel ashamed of, and turn those into adoration. Growing up as queer people we can feel ashamed of so much and a lot of that is to do with being raised in a heteropatriarchy. To turn around and adore those things is such powerful resistance. After all, Lucifer was a shamed angel. We’ve turned around and chosen to adore those dark parts of Lucifer.
Marcus: That is the thesis. I’ve tried like five times to express it. [Laughs] But that is it.
Finally—what is the fundamental quality, either personal or professional, that draws you to each other?
Marcus: Athena gets shit done.
Athena: And Marcus feels so much.
Marcus Whale and Athena Thebus will perform Lucifer at Sugar Mountain Festival in Melbourne on Saturday, January 20th 2018. Tickets here.
Text & Photography Joe Brennan