The answer to that question has taken the form of a stunningly powerful exhibition of photographs of Tanaka by Keiichi Tahara, now on show at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo.
Titled "Keiichi Tahara: Photosynthesis with Min Tanaka," this exhibition consists of 46 photographs of Tanaka selected by Tahara for their artistic quality, and in some cases newly printed in enlarged sizes to suit the display spaces of the museum, based on several visits by the photographer while planning the show. Sadly, Tahara passed away due to illness this past June, never to see the exhibition that had been nearly four decades in the making.
Tahara met Tanaka by chance when they were both working in France in 1978. Tanaka was appearing as a dancer in the Paris Autumn Festival that year. Tahara was 27 and had found success as a photographer living and working in Paris since moving there at the age of 20. Tanaka was 33 at the time, and the two found they had common artistic interests and decided to work together on a project. It had no commissioning client, it was purely a project driven by the two young artists’ curiosity.
"Ironically, as an artist, Tanaka never liked being photographed," said the show’s curator, Atsuo Yasuda. "To him, dance is movement, not poses, and for similar reasons, he also dislikes performing on stage.
"The condition that Tanaka specified for what would initially be a three-year photography project was that he would not pose, he would only dance in his usual outdoor style oblivious to Tahara’s camera," Yasuda explained.
Tanaka’s unique dance style was to choose an outdoor space and, wearing only a loincloth, move slowly while reacting to the environment as sensed by his nearly naked body.
"When he danced, Tanaka applied brown makeup over his entire body and shaved his head to show a body that was not specifically Min Tanaka but a somewhat more universal body," the curator said.
Tahara’s style as a photographer was based on his reactions to light in the European environment that was so different from that of Japan. "It was the strength of the light he found in Europe and the difference in European landscapes he discovered when seeing them in that European light," Yasuda said. "And it wasn’t the colors, because Tahara worked only in black and white at the time, it was purely the contrast of light and shadow and the textures it revealed."
Those concerns show clearly in the light and shadow on Tanaka’s slowly moving body and in the textures seen in his skin and his shaved head. And, the common ground for the two artists was that Tanaka would also be reacting to the ambient light as part of the environment he danced in.
The environments they chose to work in are another defining aspect of their project. They ranged from cityscapes in Paris, Rome, New York and Tokyo, to natural environments in Japan and Iceland. In the north Atlantic country, Tahara was able to shoot Tanaka dancing in the light of the midnight sun.
One of the most striking environments we see in this exhibition appears in a series of eight photographs titled simply "Bordeaux," which refers to the French city where the images were taken. There, Tanaka dances in a strange and inexplicable architectural structure consisting of evenly spaced concrete columns and a corresponding grid of horizontal girder-like concrete spans that continue underfoot and overhead for about 100 meters.
"It is a submarine shelter built by the Nazis in World War II at Bordeaux near the French coast to protect their U-Boats from Allied bombing," Yasuda said. "And it was so large and strong that after the war they simply gave up on trying to tear it down."
That phone call from Tahara to Tanaka two years ago also resulted in the two artists resuming their project after a hiatus of 36 years. The natural location they chose was the dancer’s home in rural Yamanashi Prefecture, where he teaches other dancers to move in reaction to the environment while also doing farm work. One gallery contains five of these new photographs of Tanaka, now 72, moving on his soil and amid his vegetable foliage.
When considered for what it is, the natural fruits of the two intrepid artists who met by chance in their youth four decades ago, this show is close to an artistic miracle, played out in black and white on raw earth and stone and the human body.
"Keiichi Tahara: Photosynthesis with Min Tanaka" runs until Dec. 24. The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, is closed on Mondays. Visit www.haramuseum.or.jp for details.
Reed is a Tokyo-based art journalist and translator in the field of fine and performing arts.