Whichever country we grow up in, symbols of state form part of our day-to-day lives. Flags, hymns, and heraldics echo both grand histories and mundane bureaucracy — and are often seized upon by conservatives and the far right to channel rigid ideas of power.
Kacper Szalecki’s Potopia challenges that ownership by reimagining Poland’s state symbols to create a seperate queer and radical nation state. The project occupies a special place in Poland’s contemporary LGBTQ+ culture: a dream both of a more inclusive future, and an act of questioning the very nature of 21st century national identities.
“The idea behind Potopia was to make a non-existent place just by making a few little changes [to Poland’s existing heraldry]. The first step was to create the graphic identity of this new state. The “Potopian” emblem is based on the Polish emblem, and so is the flag,” Szalecki says. “For me, changing the colours [of these objects] was very symbolic. Especially if we take the red in the Polish flag, which is connected to masculinity, blood, war. With just a slight change of hue it becomes pink, which is just [seen as] very gay.”
In the state of Potopia, everything from official maps to military uniforms are pink and yellow. Szalecki clashes bright camp colours with a more institutional aesthetic, while also integrating subtle elements from Polish pop culture. So far, he has created everything a new country might need — from archival family photographs and advertising, to customised clothing — making the state of Potopia a curious place to explore.
“The majority of the work I make explores visual languages. Sometimes it’s much more about appropriating visual languages than trying to develop my own,” the artist says. “I enjoy working in an interdisciplinary field and try to collaborate with people and initiate or facilitate creative processes rather than just creating my own works.”
In the context of today’s Poland, the political nature of Potopia is impossible to ignore. Szalecki started the project in 2016, only to see the question of LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms become ever more volatile. The latest cultural clash between the government and liberal activists poses the question: can queerness and LGBTQ+ identities co-exist with Polish identity? For Szalecki, it was never in doubt.
“I’m trying to make things which stem from my experience or identity. I’m working with my queerness because it’s part of my identity and I would like to tell stories of non-heteronormative people in Poland,” he says. “Oppression and representation of power is crucial context. How do you change governmental symbols to represent us? Potopia is a fictional place, a utopian place, but also the possibility and projection of a perfect Poland.”
But the subversion of institutional aesthetics only provides the surface of Szalecki’s work. He is currently more interested in exploring deeper myths, archetypes, and the identities of Polish culture and state. Last year, he returned to his background in metalwork to create a series of amulets from the metal eagles that used to symbolise the socialist Polish People’s Republic.
The video work Transformation captures the artist’s journey in reclaiming and rethinking the symbol of the eagle, interacting with its historical heritage in a visual, speculative, and physical way. It is a testament to the idea that our understanding of history is never one-dimensional — just as utopias such as Potopia will mean very different things to different people.
“Utopias always include some degree of oppression and exclusion,” Szalecki says. “Plato’s utopia, for example, excluded poetry and artists. So through creating this pink and yellow seemingly perfect world I want to question the very idea of a one-sided utopia.”