An email today from Zarko:
I am shaken by the death of my friend Era. This man may have been the most important person in my life. . . . Everything I know and am related to art I have from him. He was a total artist. That’s how he lived. And that is how he died. . . . I was fortunate to have lived and worked with him from 1971-1974. That experienced gave me structure, formed me. I have never been as mournful as I am now.
In 2010 Zarko published a book about his friend, subtitled “The Story of the Turtle.” He signed my copy:
For my friend Scott,
words from the times that were perhaps only a dream,
In my “Approximate Biography” of Zarko for our book We: On Friendship, I write about Zarko and Era:
Mandić was from Novi Sad, one of a group of artists who worked conceptually. They still see themselves as the origin of conceptualism in Yugoslavia. That’s absurd. We were all in the same boat: a boat that sank, as is well known. In Belgrade we were all visual artists, except for me, although I did that one piece of concrete poetry you have seen in my flat: “Medex.” It was for our performance #1, 1971, at the Belgrade International Theater Festival.
I visualize the extended hexagon fashioned by Žarko’s strategically typed medmedmedmedmed. At the top two sharp swarms of “z”s enter or leave the literal hive.
Era wrote the performance piece called “Medex,” Žarko says. We lived together in a creative commune in apartment 10 b in Ljube Didića street. Three of us had studied literature together: Miodrag Vuković, one of the greatest Serbian-Montenegrin writers of my generation—he and I wrote some poems together; Nebojša Janković, now a journalist in Canada; and I. Era Milivojević joined us. He was already an artist of note, together with Marina Abramović who went on to stardom in New York. The title “Medex” came from a Yugoslavian company that produced honey and honey products. Their motto was “good and healthy products.” The four of us were bees.
That photo of the four of you in striped sweaters lying on your stomachs, head to bushy head? Your mouths busy producing honey?
Exactly. There was also a queen bee, a sexy woman Era chased across the stage. And a good-hearted beekeeper along with two noisemakers. My brother Miloje tortured a metal plate to make a terrific noise.
They were archaic, natural, mythical—exactly the values we felt were being threatened. I wrote a poem about insects called “Events in a Dark Chamber.” And so on. Era was an enormous influence on me—turned me from literature to conceptual art.
The cover of Žarko’s book Era presents Era with his bare limbs grotesquely constricted by rubber bands during a1973 performance called “Turtle.” Žarko appears in the photo as well, his back to the camera, wearing black pants, a long-sleeved white shirt, and shoulder-length hair bound by a strip of cloth. A portable record player squats on the floor between him and Era.
I can’t read the book Era. I can’t read any of Žarko’s books except the two we wrote together.
With the help of my little dictionary/rečnik, described in detail in “A Reasonable Dictionary,” I decipher the epigraph for Era, a quotation from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Time present and time past /Are both perhaps present in time future.” Žarko signed the book with a related message: “For my friend Scott, words from the times that were, perhaps, only a dream.” A dream that may be present in time future, I think, in the form of our books, in the form of our children and grandchildren. When I told Žarko’s mother I had seven children, she said that Žarko had given her only a single grandchild, “lazy man that he is.” I defended my friend: Žarko has more books than I have children. And you have to admit, Milica is a wonderful granddaughter. That’s true, she said. That’s certainly true.
I’m headed inside to get us something to drink, but first I ask if Era liked music.
Era and I listened mostly to Bob Dylan, Žarko answers. As you know, for a long time my English consisted of phrases from Dylan’s songs.
You could have done worse.
And today, Zarko, I mourn with you the death of a man I never met but whom I have grown to know through your stories. You stand here on the back of your book about ERA, linked to him through your pages about him. And the four of you in your MEDEX performance.