At the back of Kondaya Genbei, a 280-year-old obi wholesaler in Kyoto, slippered art-goers ascend a winding stairwell just wide enough for one. At the top of the narrow tower, a chamber shrouded in darkness is lit from overhead by a thin circle of natural light. The fixture resembles a solar eclipse hanging over the scene: Sculptures, presented like idols, made of collaged body parts, camera components and tiny picture frames. They represent not humanity’s devotion to any particular gods, but its unshakeable faith in photography. Cryptic and sardonic, this is Birdhead’s world.

“Phototheism” is an imagined religion by the artist duo Birdhead, showing now as part of their exhibition at the 12th edition of Kyotographie, the international photo festival in the old capital. “Welcome to Birdhead World Again, Kyoto 2024” features three projects by the Shanghai duo of Ji Weiyu and Song Tao, high school friends who began collaborating under the name Birdhead after random keystrokes produced the characters 鳥 and 頭 together.

Since they started collaborating in 2004, Birdhead has exhibited work in the main show of the 2011 Venice Biennale and as part of a 2012 exhibit of new photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with some of their work acquired by Tate Modern.