A lot can be gathered from a city’s leftovers. Just ask Leyla Cardenas. The Colombian artist has long been intrigued by the things that societies willingly discard.

Growing up in a civil war-torn country, Cardenas recalls searching for meaning among the piles of debris and wreckage she would regularly find in her home town of Bogota. Over time she became fascinated with these once so permanent structures reduced to rubble.

“I started collecting things the city would throw away,” she recounts. “Those voids in the city were very revealing to me.” Pondering over the scraps of facade, broken windows, tangles of lumber and crumbled cement walls, she wondered what the ruins suggested about her community and its reverence or disregard for its past and what they might portend for the future.

These discarded artifacts and the questions they raised in her mind eventually became the building blocks of Cardenas’ art, which has expanded over the years from considering issues of cultural identity in her native Colombia to exploring the ways other communities around the world deal with their past as they move forward into the future.

“The question I’m asking with a city or place is how they deal with memory and the past,” Cardenas says. With Scarcity, opening this Friday at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Cardenas puts these questions to San Jose.

Cardenas has a particular interest in architecture. Scarcity, which opens Jan. 15, compiles plaster impressions of historic buildings from around Market Street, which she will arrange for display on the gallery’s walls and floor, and tells the story of San Jose’s complicated, and almost adversarial, relationship to its past.

Once the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” and the first capital city of California, San Jose has since been branded the  “Capital of Silicon Valley,” and its focus on progress and innovation through tech seems to reveal a community more interested in disruption than legacy.

“I feel California definitely moves at a different speed, especially Silicon Valley,” Cardenas says. “There’s not that relationship with the past. You feel it is a little bit in transition and there is nothing that takes you back.”

The exhibit is asking questions that are especially relevant in the here and now. As this tech-oriented region comes charging out of the Great Recession and new developments spring up all over downtown San Jose, Cardenas hopes her exhibit will get people thinking about the city’s proud past even as they move inexorably forward into the future.

Leyla Cardenas: ‘Scarcity’
Nov 15-Jan 31,
10am-5pm, Free
San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art