2020 got off to a rough start with the Australian bush fires. Unfortunately, the biggest island in the world is used to suffering from those natural catastrophes every summer, but this year was more tragic than ever. It’s estimated that over a billion animals from many different species died, and the green, lush vegetable areas turned to ashes in a matter of days. Coping with such an incredible loss for the planet was – and still is – difficult to many, but artists contributed to overcoming the trauma.
This is the case of Melbourne-based couple Ilona Savcenko and Dushan Philips, a Latvian photographer and Sri Lankan writer respectively. Since they met on one New Year’s Eve, they’ve lived in almost ten different countries around the globe but hadn’t worked together until now, when they felt the situation required it. Joining their visual and literary talents, they worked on a heart-breaking series about loss, grief, mother nature and recovery. We speak with them to know more about the journey they embarked on through the Australian coastline and how has creativity helped them personally and spiritually.
Ilona, Dushan, first things first: how did you know each other and how is your current relationship like?
We met through mutual friends. On New Year’s Eve, we became more than friends and have been inseparable ever since. Geographically worlds apart, I (Dushan) was born close to the equator (in Sri Lanka) and Ilona spent her formative years by the North Pole (Latvia). Melbourne has been home for almost two decades.
We’ve lived together in almost ten countries, and dance in the universality of our diverse stories. As nomads, our relationship embraces every colour of the emotional rainbow and we’re richer because of this. It’s a rare trait to find someone who isn’t constricted by social pressures or the rigidity of cultural norms, so we’ve been happily stumbling down the rabbit hole reinventing the relationship wheel and figuring it out as we go.
Ilona took the pictures while Dushan wrote a short story to describe the experience. But had you ever worked together before? How is this project different from previous ones?
This is our first project together. When we embarked on this journey, we didn’t have a specific outcome in mind. We were planning our first trip away and Ilona voiced her interest in doing a road trip where we hugged the Eastern coastline and visited some of the fire-affected towns. I happily jumped on board. It’s a unique project for both of us because nothing could quite prepare us for what we witnessed. We hadn’t worked together before but really wanted to, and after many conversations about how the trip impacted us, it made complete sense that we should share our experience.
We’re both incredibly grateful for the privilege of living in Australia and are always searching for new ways to understand and experience the land. We have both grown fond of this beautiful, rugged landscape. Ilona and I have spent a lot of time outdoors hiking in nature. It’s nice to earn a view with a long walk in the bush. It’s hard to ignore the fact that we are all somehow involved in contributing to the traumas of climate change. As artists, we felt it was the least we could do to shed a little light on this gigantic global issue, so we just took our proverbial paintbrushes and started painting. 
Australia burnt for way too long as the world witnessed the loss of one of the most bio-diverse areas on the planet. And you decided to embark on a journey to document what was happening. Why did you feel the need to do so?
Every summer, Australia is confronted with bushfires, but the devastation this year had a visceral effect on us. Living in urban Melbourne, we rarely get to experience the carnage first-hand but spending multiple days in thick smog drifting in from the north and seeing the sun turn blood red from the smoky particles turned our city into a hellish scene out of Dante’s Inferno. Even breathing in the city was a struggle.
The media coverage was overwhelming, and while it really brought the magnitude of the issue home, hearing that over a billion birds and animals lost their lives was conceptually unfathomable. It’s hard to imagine the weight of the situation.
We were planning a holiday and heard that many of the townships that relied on tourism were struggling to make their ends meet, so it made sense to do what little we could and headed for the coast. It started off as a curiosity but quickly became a calling, and this project is the result.
Tell us a bit more about the stops you did during the journey, why they were important, and what did you find there compared to what you were used to seeing.
The South-Eastern coastline is renowned for its beauty and is usually a tourist hotspot. Mallacoota was our first stop. It’s a stunning part of Australia with white sandy beaches and granite peaks, prehistoric rock formations (some date in excess of four hundred million years). With a tiny population of just over one thousand people, the place would be sparse at the best of times, but as we drove in, it felt as if we’d driven into an abandoned town.
We spoke to a couple of locals and at the height of the fires, holiday-makers and locals were forced to retreat to the foreshore only to be rescued by Navy ships later. Even the firefighters were eventually told that they were on the bitter end of a losing battle and had to abandon their posts. Miraculously, at the last minute, the fire took a turn and the town centre was spared.
We drove through roads laced with burnt tree lines for what felt like hours through Croajingalong National Park, and the ghostliness of our surroundings made for some sleepless nights. Honestly, the barrage of haunting imagery we are often exposed to via social media cannot in any way compare to the experience of seeing the forests in the flesh. But there was a keen sense that everyone was interested in bringing as much normalcy back to the town as possible and the spirits were up. The rest of our trip was influenced by road closures and we stayed in some of the few campsites that were still operational at the time.
As Australian-based artists, I assume the bush fires affected you more personally. How have art and your creative practices helped you to cope with or even overcome the tragedy?
Ilona: It’s a tragedy that has affected me mostly on a humanitarian level. Seeing how the fires have affected the livelihoods of so many people is devastating but being surrounded by the silence in an environment that is usually in abundance of bird and animal life is just heartbreaking. Documenting our journey has helped me process the grief. It also gave me a tool as the world is confronted with a new disaster of a different scale. For many, the road to recovery from the fires is still to take shape.
Dushan: As an actor, I was taught to approach Shakespeare on the floor. Not by reading it but by engaging with it physically. In motion, the magic of his language comes to life and it starts to make a lot more sense. When confronted by tragedy, I try and approach it the same way. The bush fires were a stark reminder that Mother Nature is hurting and that global warming is more real than ever before. If done right, it could be argued that one of the wonderful strengths of artists and art is in their power to influence in a way that is inclusive, entertaining and heartfelt. I think we are waking up to the fact that our way of life is not in harmony with nature, and hopefully, we could nurture our artists to help impact lasting positive change.
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Watching the rest of the world react with such care and concern for the recent bushfires rocked the reality of the situation but hearing that more than a Billion birds and animals lost their lives because of it seemed a truth stranger than fiction. In a show of solidarity, even Fat Boy Slim put up pictures of the Fire fighters and brought the entire crowd at Sydney Myer Music Bowl to their feet. A few weekends prior, while hiking Wilson’s Prom with some friends, I was in a state of confused delirium from inhaling the fumes of smoke blown down from the North of the country. Bushfires are a feature in Australian summers, but the scope of this season’s carnage was impossible to fathom. We needed to see the devastation in real life.
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From Malacoota through Croajingalong National park to Bairnsdale, for days we traversed the guts of fire-ravaged forests. Walled by pillars of Charred trunks, the macabre site was haunting to drive through. The wisdom of these old trees had all but vanished. Having lost their majestic canopies, they no longer had the power to shield us from the harsh Australian Sun. The sadness seeped through gradually and we were shocked out of a voice. It felt as if we had lost our dearest family members. The deathly silence void of life gave a piercing soundscape to the devastation.
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It’s hard to imagine how delicately balanced our Eco-system really is. Of course bush fires are important for the rejuvenation of our landscapes, but this was different. The tangible absence of birds and animals gave the air an eeriness of a burial ground. The stillness was dotted with the occasional bird carcass. The Garden of Eden was bleeding and it felt like her citizens were self-immolating in protest. The deafening quiet still permeates within!
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The brittle rocks were delicate to the touch and broke away with each step. The fragility of our surroundings matched the delicateness of our mortality. During the darkest hour between Sunset and Moonrise, the black in the sky mirrored the black on the bark, which stirred a heavy grief. The silhouettes of the leaf-less trees punctured the horizon like a scene out of a Tim Burton movie.
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Eventually however, the sky cracked open, made way for the Full Moon and laced the ceiling with a scattering of stars unblemished by light pollution. Light can only be created from darkness! Life was already forcing its way back through the trees. It did give the landscape a faint glimmer of hope that it is resilient. That no matter the pain, the cosmic forces press forward and will always reinvent itself! But at what cost?