Pavel Braila came to the visual arts by a somewhat circuitous route. His degree is in engineering, but he always wanted to be a chef. He had an amateur interest in photography, and was invited to a summer art camp run by the Chisinau Center for Contemporary Art (K:SAK) in 1996 to document the activities there. This art camp, Carbon Art, was instrumental in developing the experimental and contemporary art scene in Moldova, introducing new genres and media, such as performance and video art.
The artist’s early performances took place in the context of Carbon Art. For example, in Unde. Unde? Undeva [Where. Where? Somewhere] (1997), he suspended large piece of paper between tree trunks, and ran through them, breaking the paper, and thus breaking free. The following year, he created Pioneer, when, wrapped from head to toe in white paper, he rolled a spool of paper through a field and into the forest, until the spool ran out. Finally, in Work (1999), he spread sheets of paper over a small garden plot, and used a large corkscrew to dig hoes, which went through first the paper, then the soil. In these early pieces, he said that he worked with paper often, because he was interested in the “sound of the paper being written, torn or destroyed.”
Contemporary art came rather late to Moldova, and it was largely due to the efforts of K:SAK that artists were offered not only the opportunity to experiment, but a community with which to discuss and share ideas. At this point, performance appealed to the artist because it was open to multiple meanings, and it allowed him to play with different thoughts and ideas. In his early works, Pavel says that he was working completely intuitively. He also said that initially he didn’t imagine that one could make a living from art, but in 1999, he got the opportunity to study at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht. He continued his work in performance, but also began working in film.
Perhaps because of his background as a photographer, the artist thinks very seriously about the documentation of his performative work. He commented that when live performance is undocumented “it has a short life,” so, he “decided to make two in one” – he could do a live performance, and then make a work of art out of the documentation, so that the piece has an afterlife.
More recently, his work has focused on the situation of Moldova along the East-West axis, and his country’s place in Europe. In 2002, he created a piece together with Manuel Raeder, a poster entitled Probably Moldova Doesn’t Exist. The two had noticed that the poster for Manifesta 4, a pan-European biennale, started after the fall of the Wall and in some ways focused on uniting the previously divided halves of Europe, featured a map of Europe with Moldova completely left out of it – there was simply a border between Romania and Ukraine, with no sign of Moldova. So the artists created an intervention, and taped a piece of paper over the poster, which read “probably Moldova doesn’t exist.” This poster is symptomatic of the current status of Moldova in Europe, and as well as the sentiment of its inhabitants – especially artists, eager to be visible on the world stage. As one of Europe’s smaller nations, and a former Soviet Republic, it somehow gets lost in the shuffle. Not to mention the fact that it is also often confused with the region in Romania that it borders, Moldavia, as well as the fact that its shifting borders, throughout history, have contributed to this confusion. [Incidentally, when I called my bank to tell them that I was going abroad, so that they wouldn’t block my cards, the person I spoke to “couldn’t find” Moldova in the system. It took some explaining as to where it is and what it is before the name could be found.]
Consequently, much of the artist’s work is focused on issues related to Moldova’s national identity and its place in Europe. In the performance Welcome to the EU (2006), the artist created a stencil and painted the EU ring of stars on the face of his passport – creating an easy way to get an EU passport and circumventing the more difficult route. His film, Shoes for Europe, which was shown at Documenta 11 and featured in the exhibit “Blood and Honey,” documents the process of changing the gauge of the railroad cars at the border crossing with Romania. Russia, and thus the former Soviet Republics, use a wider gauge of railroad tracks, which means that their railroad cars don’t fit on European tracks. Anyone who has taken a train across the former Soviet border is well aware of the process, which involves waiting at the border for a few hours so that different “shoes” can be fitted onto the car so that they can travel into Europe. Pavel used this film as a metaphor for becoming part of Europe. In his words, he wanted to show “that an adaptation process is required in order to place yourself on the Western track,” a process which many Eastern European countries are still undergoing.
Food is one of the great cultural identifiers, and this is also an element that features into Pavel’s work and performances. Although he maintained that he originally wanted to be a cook, it is in fact often his mother’s cooking that he presents to his viewers at exhibitions and openings. As part of the exhibition “To Do Things in the Middle of Nowhere” the artist showed a video of his return from the Netherlands back to Moldova, the last part of which he hitchhiked. While the video about a return from West to the East was playing, the artist was cooking soup in the middle of the projection room. The food was the audience’s “reward” for watching the film to the end. The process of bringing the food that his mother had prepared, the meat pies and bread, as well as the wine that his father brought, was documented, from the phone calls to the journey of the food on the bus from Moldova to Germany. He describes these buses as a sort of shadow transport system, whereby people send goods between countries on the buses, and the service is faster than DHL or FedEx. The performance, which included the presentation and consumption of the food, was entitled Homesick Cuisine, and is emblematic of the life of an émigré, who often misses his home cuisine more than anything in his new environment.
Pavel was invited to take part in Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg this year. While one of his pieces targeted the Sochi Olympics, the other continued his interest in East versus West. In Cold Painting, snow from the Sochi Olympics is delivered to Palace Square by limousine, where it is presented to viewers on a gold table. The viewers are allowed to interact with this precious material (it was very expensive for Russia to produce and manufacture for the Olympics), and create a “cold painting” on gold. The artist also had food delivered to St. Petersburg by rail in Railway Catering, which was served at Vitebsk Station. Finally, in the action Another Noon, the artist attempted to negotiate a second canon shot, immediately following the one that is fired every day at noon at the Petropavlovsk Fortress. This second shot would be fired to mark European noon; a reference to the fact that in 2010, Vladimir Putin changed Russia’s time zones, making the time in Western Russia Greenwich Mean Time +3, instead of +2, which it is in neighboring Estonia, Finland and Moldova. This “politics of the clock” serves to further distance Russia from Europe.
Pavel’s work is a great example of the newly developing contemporary art scene in Moldova, and demonstrates how art can use to explore issues of individual integration and self-definition, and finding one’s place in the post-Soviet world.