When Jessica Morgan made “Burning Down the House” the title of her Gwangju Biennale, who could have predicted the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April? Or that the censorship of Hong Sung-dam’s mural satirizing South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye—whose administration has been criticized for bungling the crisis and putting too little effort into investigating its causes—would lead to the resignation of Gwangju Biennale president Dr. Yongwoo Lee?(1) Lee was a cofounder of Asia’s oldest biennial back in 1994, so when its 10th edition opened on Friday, one could say the institution itself was indeed ablaze.

Steeped in the somber histories of violence and suppression synonymous with Gwangju, Morgan’s exhibition, as a geopolitical instrument, is an apt backdrop for ruminating on present circumstances and their resonance with the past.(2) Broken into five gallery presentations plumbing facets of the overarching theme, from the house as an architectural figure to fire as a metaphor for transformative unrest, the 103-artist show is also successful as a survey of art. Morgan has tapped a thoroughly international set of voices—from Asia, the West, the South, essentially everywhere—and begins the journey in Korea, in darkness, with Lee Bul’s gritty early performance work made years before she was minted as a popular export.

As communism fell in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lee disturbed the streets of Korea and Japan wearing dysmorphic costumes and reciting monologues while torturing herself. Reconstructions of the garments hang from the ceiling against video documentation of her performances, and it’s a pivot of gallery one which culminates with the work of another Korean artist, Minouk Lim. Lim’s piece Mr. Eui Jin Chai and 1,000 Canes (2014) pays homage to the eponymous artist who survived an attack by the state in 1949 by hiding under the bodies of his slain brother and cousin. A heap of gnarled branches fashioned as walking sticks fill one corner of the room, conveying the ardor of his lifelong pilgrimage to bring his tragedy to light. In a second room, Lim’s two-channel video Navigation X – From X to A (2014) is on display: one screen follows mothers who lost their children in the May 18, 1980 Democratic Uprising to excavation sites where bodies are still being recovered from the civilian massacres that occurred during and after the Korean War (such as Chai’s), while on the other screen, footage loops of a performance recorded on the opening day of the Biennale.

Among the couple dozen works in between Lee and Lim there are, curiously, four sets of illegible black objects by Camille Henrot (found items dipped in tar), Cornelia Parker (shards of burnt trees), Anna Maria Maiolino (carefully wrought clay), and Gabriel Orozco (randomly cast clay). Ordinarily the practice of gathering bodies of work based on cosmetic similarities might come across as glib, if not neglectful. However amassing these four, each of which touches on repetition and seriality to begin with, seems to symbolically underscore the inevitability of history repeating itself and the universality of darkness across cultures (France, England, Brazil, Mexico, shown here in Korea). It’s one of the more ineffable applications of the Biennale’s surprisingly extensible conceit.

Morgan dispenses with the “alternative” spaces around town frequently used as exhibition sites, situating all five galleries in the permanent Biennale Halls. Almost exclusively kept under one roof, the construct of the exhibition as house is writ large. In this regard the show feels both enclosed and vast, and nowhere is this better evoked than in the psychological space created inside the exhibition’s most obvious showstopper, Urs Fischer’s 38 E. 1st Street (2014), a signature photo-realistic wallpaper recreation of the artist’s former apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. Addictive because of its elements of voyeurism and envy alone, the project is also a show-within-a-show, as Morgan has installed paintings, sculptures, and performances by a half dozen Biennale artists in situ. A tall young man in the foyer shouts the names of guests as they enter the apartment, courtesy of Pierre Huyghe. The corners of Fischer’s kiwi-themed dining room play host to Stewart Uoo’s “Security Window Grill series (2014), in which gates like the ones that protect the windows of high-crime neighborhoods in American cities are embellished with the visceral juxtaposition of synthetic, mammal flesh.

The other sections could use some editing. Gallery two is the most jumbled, beginning with a yucky anthropomorphized doorway by Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Open Wide) (2012): a veiny, jute uvula viewers have to walk around to get inside, where many paintings and installations induce biennial burnout. Rising above the fray are Sungchul Yang’s Cut-In (1985), a suite of black-and-white photographs in which the artist’s hand passes before the lens to be seared into each shot as a quasi-Surrealist glitch, and a clever video by Jonathas de Andrade, The Uprising (2012), in which a horse-cart race is filmed in Recife, an activity that can now only legally happen under the auspices of a film shoot—the agricultural animals that were once essential to the city’s street life have been banned by its accelerated development. The gallery’s focal point is meant to be Jianyi Geng’s plexi-encased collection of quotidian items, now deemed useless by friends adjusting to China’s postmillennial economy (whereas “useless” is an assumed oxymoron in former communist China). But Useless (2004) is too sterile and didactic to compete with the whole world of the show around it.

Gallery four is organized around challenges to normalcy. Its most compelling works are lifted from the twentieth century (namely those by Birgit Jürgenssen, Ulrike Ottinger, Cornel Brudascu and Lionel Wendt)—perhaps an ominous sign about art’s function in contemporary society. The best new piece that interfaces directly with the local context is Ei Arakawa and director of the Seoul Marginal Theater Festival Inza Lim’s The Unheroed Theatre (Character Studies with Gwangdae, Shinmyoung, Tobaki, the Fictitious Aseupalteau) (2014). A room is filled with photographic cutouts of various actors hanging from the ceiling. Taken from archives of theatrical productions staged in the years immediately following the 1980 uprising, the players are costumed as soldiers, student protestors, grieving family members, and other archetypes from the schism that haunts Gwangju. Equally layered and flimsy, the immersive mobile—and the undeclared actress offering her unreliable perspective on the subject during the opening days—manifests how remembering painful events through narrative is both a durable and thorny practice.

For those who attended the opening, everything inside was overshadowed by Minouk Lim’s performance Navigation ID (2014), the delivery of two shipping containers full of the human remains of Korean War-era massacre victims collected by family members in order to finally receive a proper burial. Just after the opening press conference, ambulances, a helicopter, and a tour bus full of women in white and men in suits emptied onto the Biennale Square as a media corps of cameramen and photographers began to swarm. It had been explained in detail what would happen: the bones would arrive, the families would be escorted onto the grounds, and the Mothers of May 18 would greet the relatives of the deceased in an elaborately choreographed action about hospitality and requited recognition. The intensity was so great that it conjured the uncanny sensation of witnessing reality TV in the making, a convergence of actual lives and emotions with the rigidity and pretense of a script. Lim’s piece is an unwieldy blend of artistic gesture and civically engineered ceremony, which, come to think of it, is one version of what a biennial itself might be. Not one that subverts the status quo the way some of its best works do, but one that is genuinely attentive to where it is.

1) Hong’s painting was removed from the Gwangju Biennale’s “Sweet Dew–After 1980” 20th anniversary exhibition, which opened on August 8, 2014 at the Gwangju Museum of Art. While a program of the Biennale, the exhibition is not a part of “Burning Down the House”.

2) The Gwangju Biennale was established in commemoration of the events of May 18, 1980, interchangeably referred to as the Gwangju Uprising or the Gwangju Massacre, in which hundred of civilians were killed by the state army.