Yayoi Kusama. Death of a Nerve, 1976. Lito and Kim Camacho Collection. © YAYOI KUSAMA
Kusama made Death of a Nerve three years after she returned to Japan from New York, where she lived and worked from 1958 to 1973. This large-scale soft sculpture reflects her frazzled state of mind during this period. She suffered from exhaustion and the loss of loved ones: her father, Kamon, and her close friend, American artist Joseph Cornell.
If you visually trace this striking work from one end to the other, you’ll notice that it is one continuous piece. Its suspended parts droop to the ground, as if they have been completely drained of energy and are close to dying. The black spots scattered on the beige surface evoke images of disease and decay, underscoring the idea of a nervous breakdown. At the same time, this sculpture reminds viewers of a snake or a worm, a resilient life form.
Since she experienced her first hallucination at the age of ten, art has been a form of therapy for Kusama. To create Death of a Nerve, she painted polka dots on a sheath of fabric 100 metres long that she sewed by hand. The laborious process allowed her to channel grief and other difficult emotions at her own pace.
Seeing art as the only cure for her pain, anxiety, and fear, Kusama continues to create new work to this day, including the colourful installation hanging in the M+ Light Well that is visible from the Main Hall on the Ground Floor and Found Space on the B2 level. While the two works share a similar form as well as a title, Kusama’s huge new Death of Nerves is bursting with joy, reflecting the tremendous transformation and healing she has experienced over the past 40 years.
Death of a Nerve is an installation created by Yayoi Kusama in 1976. It is a textile work made of a hundred-metre-long string of stuffed fabric with a diameter of about 15 centimetres.
The piece is very long and soft. It resembles enlarged nervous tissue, with the nerves diverging from or overlapping each other at different locations. Parts of it hang on the exhibition wall or ceiling with the rest lying twisted and bent on the floor. The surface of the work is made of off-white cotton covered in black polka dots the size of an adult’s thumb. The thickness of the stuffing varies along the length of the piece, with some sections being flatter while others are fuller. Like spots of mould or the coat of a Dalmatian, the edges of the black polka dots are not entirely well-defined and bleed into the off-white fabric. Bulging stumps the size of an adult’s palm stick out along the length of the work like short branches.