The artist Pavel Braila has seen both sides of the Iron Curtain. He was born in the Soviet Union in 1971 and grew up there, and just as he reached adulthood, the Soviet Union fell. Braila still lives in his native land, only now it's the poverty-stricken Moldova, a tiny arc of land, slightly larger than Maryland, nestled between Ukraine and Romania.
His art, on view at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, examines the tensions of transition in Moldova. Braila brings the rich details and cool head of a documentary filmmaker to his work and blends that with a downright giddy eye for beauty. The grand results embrace poverty, obstinacy, sluggishness, and ostentation with affection and warmth.
''Barons' Hill," a two-part installation, depicts a neighborhood in the Moldovan city of Soroca filled with majestic, audacious, and uninhabitable homes built by the Roma, formerly known as gypsies, of the area. Roma built these giant houses, wildly mixing up architectural styles, mounting statues of rearing stallions and soaring eagles at their gates, randomly using symbols like dollar signs and swastikas. Yet they lack heat, running water, and often electricity. Their owners travel half the year, and when they're home, Braila said, ''they live next door in a hut or a small garage."
He came to town from Moldova to install the exhibition, his first solo show in the United States. The List Center's director, Jane Farver, saw Braila's piece ''Shoes for Europe," a large-screen film projection, at Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, in 2002, and knew she wanted to bring him to MIT. ''Shoes for Europe" is also on view at the List Center.
Working on ''Barons' Hill," the artist befriended the Roma in Soroca, and they gave him access to about 20 homes. The neighborhood attracts a lot of tourists.
''People take pictures and say, 'What crazy bastards,' " said Braila.
The installation nods to their audacity without mocking it: Walk into the first gallery and you'll find gold ingots beneath your feet. They appear to be gold, anyway; in fact, they're brass, a reference to ''gypsies' gold" and the reputation gypsies had for passing off brass trinkets as gold. Photographic triptychs depicting the houses line the walls, showing ornately carved metal rooftops, chiseled balustrades, and onion domes.
The next gallery is dark, lined with three large-screen projections on either side. To the sound of the ''Air" movement from Bach's Third Orchestral Suite, these films envelop the viewer in architectural and decorative detail, sedately panning over spectacular inlaid wood floors, chandeliers, velvet curtains, and kitschy porcelain figurines. What many an educated eye in art and architecture would easily mock, Braila honors. There's no irony here, no clever winks and nods.
''The people who built these houses -- this is what it is [to them]," Braila says of his depiction. ''Nobody will see this and think it's ugly or tasteless."
The artist says he sees the Barons' Hill homes as ''museums of desire and power." The installation intentionally invokes a museumlike hall of paintings.
Yet ''Barons' Hill" is no simple homage to Roma aesthetics. The existence of these houses, and Braila's lush and respectful rendering of them, speaks volumes about the Roma's place in Eastern European culture. For more than 500 years, until the mid-19th century, the Roma were enslaved. During the Holocaust, they were hoarded into concentration camps for extermination. They thrived for a time under Soviet prime minister Leonid Brezhnev (1962-1984), utilizing their nomadic lifestyle to run black markets, but they continue to suffer prejudice and persecution.
Building these houses in the 1990s, they appropriated symbols of power in an attempt to claim their own. It's like the Baroque bling that turns up in Luis Gispert's photos that reference hip-hop. Coming from a culture that has been oppressed and devalued by the larger society, the Roma, like the African-American and Latino-American practitioners of hip-hop, flaunt a Donald Trump-like favor for over-the-top style. But Braila plunges his viewers into the small, luxuriant details and diverts our tendency to judge, helping us to see ourselves in the Roma.
Also on view is ''Shoes for Europe," the film that first brought this artist international attention. Like ''Barons' Hill," it reveals Braila's passion for details and his willingness to be patient and let them tell their own story.
The artist snuck a camera into a train station in Ungheni, Moldova, where at night workers trade the wheels on trains in order to switch from eastern European tracks to western European tracks. You could say that the difference in gauge -- one of merely 85mm -- is as impenetrable as the Iron Curtain was.
The large-scale film, shot surreptitiously on a snowy night, runs with little text and no narration to the soundtrack of ambient clangs and whistles. It seems to capture another era: grizzled laborers, slowly moving train cars, lanterns held up in the snow. But what might be sweetly swallowed as nostalgia gets stuck in the craw when you realize this is still how it's done, nothing quaint about it.
Yet, as in ''Barons' Hill," there's a glory in the sheer beauty on the screen and a sense of immersion in the place: the juxtaposition of the blue train and a yellow beam in the station, the slow approach of a cart headed right for the camera.
This wheel-changing process was last retooled in 1976, when the artist was 5. Now, nearly 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its continuation is a testament to Moldova's poverty -- it is the poorest country in all of Europe -- and its attachment to old world ways.
Given all we learn about the Republic of Moldova from Braila's art, it's remarkable that such a place could nurture such an artist. His vision is big and generous but clear-sighted. He obviously loves his homeland, because he has the courage to show it to us in all its awkward, striving, stuck-in-the-past beauty.