Ashkan Honarvar Meditates on Ernest Becker’s Award-Winning Book in 12-Part Series

In his series “The Denial of Death”, Iranian-born Norway-based artist Ashkan Honarvar juxtaposes flowers with bones, elegance with vulgarity, splendid monuments with disgusting insects, moments of pleasure with incidents of torture to create beautifully grotesque collages that both disturb and invite deep reflection.

The project is inspired by the 1973 Pulitzer-winning book of the same name by Ernest Becker (1924-1974), a Jewish-American scholar who obtained a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Syracuse and later taught at the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State College and Simon Fraser University, Canada.

On his source of inspiration, Ashkan says: “Where to start with Ernest Becker? He is one of my greatest heroes alongside the Norwegian writer Jens Bjørneboe. I have been fascinated by the concept of death ever since my mom explained to me what it meant at the age of four. When I discovered Becker’s writings something clicked inside of me. Many things that I felt but couldn’t explain or verbalise were in his books. The Denial of Death is a philosophical masterpiece on the subject of death but also life and what it means to be human.”


Ashkan’s “Denial of Death” is more a meditation than a direct interpretation of the book. Each chapter is unique. The viewer will be able to engage with the project better if they dwell upon the following passage from Becker’s work, the artist’s favourite:

The Denial of Death (1973) by Ernest Becker

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being. This is what has made it so simple to shoot down whole herds of buffalo or elephants. The animals don’t know that death is happening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that’s something else.

Ashkan Honarvar was born in 1980 and studied Visual Arts and Communication in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Most recently, he participated in a solo exhibition at the CES Gallery in Los Angeles and in group exhibitions (“International Weird Collage Show”) in Valladolid and Barcelona.

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Images used with permission.