“Athens is a very distinct city, you won’t mix it up with Paris or London or Vienna, it has a character of its own”. Laiik’s Bassam Tarabay catches up with architect and urban surrealist artist Danai Gkoni to discuss her unique perspectives on Athens and the (post-) post-crisis in Greece.
It is a challenge trying to describe the aesthetic of Athens to someone that hasn’t delved in its structured chaos. An attempt would be the expression ‘jolie laide,’ translating from French to ‘beautiful ugly, or "a triumph of personality over physiognomy, the imposition of substance over surface,” as literary critic Daphne Merkin eloquently put it.
“Athens is a very distinct city, you won’t mix it up with Paris or London or Vienna, it has a character of its own” says Danai Gkoni - architect and creative illustrator behind projects such as Urban Crisis Resort, a series of pop-art collage illustrations which will resonate deeply with anyone familiar with or getting to know the city. While not all her work necessarily depict Athens, the dystopian atmosphere and contradictory images vibe with an urban population that is still trying to make sense of years of austerity and hardship - in a swinging fashion.
“I made Urban Crisis Resort in 2012, at the peak of the crisis” says Danai about the inspiration for the name. “Like the crisis, there is an element to my work that is very hard, very dark. But tourism increased dramatically, and now we are a resort post-crisis. I often say that the city is bipolar, it has two contradictory atmospheres.” Look at her work and you will often see hints of this surreal cosmos - pop coloured leisurely subjects juxtaposed against a grey urban skyline, emitting a sense of futility and hope at the same time.
Danai studied architecture at the urging of her parents, who wanted to see her apply her artistic inclinations towards something more structured. “Architecture was fantastic to study, it opened up my mind. But graphic design is clearly where my passion lies.” Asked about the influence of one on the other, she was very clear “It is apparent from my art that I am an architect. Buildings and structures are a staple in my collages and my compositions are something that I have picked up from architecture. Architecture has affected my art more than the other way round.”
After completing her degree in Athens and a Masters degree in the Netherlands, Danai returned in 2012 to her hometown, the scenic seaport of Nafplio. “I worked at my father’s office for a couple of years, and I underwent a very closed period in my personal life, I spent a lot of time alone, and it was during that time that I really applied myself to collage, creating the largest volume of work.”
Since then, things gradually progressed with contributions to local events, the first solo exhibitions, some commission-based work, and a defining participation in a pop-up store at TAF (The Open Art Foundation, an innovative multipurpose cultural space in the heart of Athens). Fast forward a few months to the opening of Contrust - a designer’s collective in an up-and-coming neighbourhood of central Athens with five of her co-exhibitors from the TAF exhibition - a move reflective of the prevailing atmosphere of post-crisis Athens, where the young and creative class that chose to remain are reclaiming the city and their future. This reclamation, coupled with the gentrification of many parts of the city due to the increase in tourism and the Airbnb effect, have not gone unnoticed by Danai, whose Masters thesis is titled ‘Artists, gentrification and resistance: The example of London's East End’ touched on this very matter.
“Apolitical artists were always the ones that facilitated gentrification because they went into the run-down areas first, making them edgy and underground. Look at the area we are in now: a creative hub, run down but expensive. Creativity sells and is branded intensively, and I consider myself to also be an inadvertent facilitator.”
Snorkelling [Urban Crisis Resort]
These rapid changes bring their own host of problems, but also contribute to many positive aspects. “I love the spurt of so much art and theatre, the energy around this. Things are happening, there are a lot more collective efforts. Athens is in urban decay, but in parallel it is very fun, gives you a lot of stimulus to meet with people, to enjoy yourself.”
Most visitors focus on the ancient part of Athens when they visit. What element of the built city best embody ‘modern’ Greece?
“There are many different buildings of modernism, and there are companies that do alternative tourism in Athens. I would take them to Exarcheia, to Technopolis, Pagrati, Kerameiko. The Polytechnic building with its history in the leftist movement, the architecturally emblematic blue building (not blue any more) in Exarcheia, the industrial Fix building in Syggrou which is now housing the National Museum of Modern Art. Even the Prosfygika (a social housing construct for the refugees of the Asian minor exodus) is an example of a built element showcasing a part of our modern history that many people visiting Greece do not know.”
Like the city which Danai has grown to love, her work may not be stereotypically beautiful, but in a manifestation of jolie laide - it is absolutely compelling.
Contrust Designers Collective in Athens Greece
Danai Gkoni is an architect and digital artist. She has lived and worked in Greece and the Netherlands. Since 2013 she explores a particular style of digital collage illustrations.
Gkoni is inspired by the cities she's lived in, especially Athens, and combines in her images a pessimistic atmosphere with bright colors and a sense of humor. The city reveals its bipolar character as a place of pleasure and despair. Gkoni's collage illustrations are dystopic and fun at the same time, intending to depict reality in a pop-surrealistic way.
You can see more of Danai Gkoni’s impressive collage work at
and at her new store, Contrust - Designers Collective, at Skoufou 10, Athens.