“Pornography is my profession” by Stefania Summermatter
Born into Swiss porn ‘nobility’, Zoë Stähli runs an X-rated art gallery in downtown Zurich and oversees the creative side of her family’s porn empire. Her greatest enemy is conformism.
With dirty hands and an old film projector wedged under her arm, Stähli opens the door of her office, located in Zurich’s lively Kreis 4 district.
She’s been busy emptying the office cellar, which resembles a dusty sex museum full of old films and other porn artefacts.
Since the end of the 1970s it is here that her father, Edi Stöckli, has built and overseen his porn empire – a film production and distribution company, an internet platform, eight projection rooms, an erotic art online museum and an art gallery.
“When I was younger my school friends were not allowed to spend time with me. Their parents thought my father was a monster who set a bad example. But I’ve always been proud of him, and of his courage and enterprising spirit,” she told swissinfo.ch.
As a Swiss film archive foundation board member, Edi Stöckli also worked as a promoter for Swiss films such as Julia’s disappearance (2010), a comedy about aging, and Sennentuntschi (2010), a psychothriller about a killer alpine sex doll. But he is perhaps best known as the “Swiss king of porn”.
His daughter is now responsible for the artistic side of the family business. Her office is itself a mini gallery heaving with pornographic paintings and postcards and bookshelves stacked with old sex magazines.
“I grew up in a liberal environment where we always talked openly about sexuality and erotic things. That was normal for me. Our home was also a meeting place for underground artists like musicians, painters and sculptors. It was only later that I realised that not everyone was able to talk so easily about certain taboo subjects,” she commented.
When art and porn meet
Stähli studied art and design, and when she was younger kept a distance from her father’s professional activities.
“I wanted my own independence and wanted to show that I could do things on my own. But my father later seduced me with the artistic side of pornography…and I gave in,” she added.
The Stöckli family opened its first museum of porn art in Lausanne in 1996.
“My father had a huge collection but there was no room in a traditional gallery for that kind of art, which was still considered taboo and was subject to censorship,” she explained.
But the museum initiative was not to everyone’s liking, especially the local authorities and the neighbours.
“The police regularly asked us to hide certain paintings which were said to be too explicit, despite the fact that the exhibition took place inside a sex cinema and was only accessible to adults,” she said.
The museum was forced to close its doors shortly after opening. The project was then put on hold until 2004 when the opening of a wine bar in the old part of Zurich allowed Stähli to rekindle her creative spirit.
“Looking at the empty walls I immediately knew how I could use them. Eventually I was able to create temporary porn art exhibitions. In mid-April [this year] we celebrated our hundredth exhibition,” she said.
The gallery, situated in the centre of Zurich close to a sex cinema, got a curious welcome from the locals. With their good value wines, karaoke evenings and porno-chic appeal, exhibition openings at “Edi’s Weinstube” have been steadily pulling in ever bigger crowds. But despite enthusiastic throngs, the paintings rarely sell.
“It’s one thing to be curious about an erotic or pornographic painting but something quite different to take home a work of art that will be looked at by your wife or mother-in-law,” Stähli joked.
In general, artists approach her directly. While some are already quite well known, others remain in the shadows struggling to seek legitimacy for their work.
“We have been constantly battling with the authorities, police and public morality. They never wanted to face the reality and accept that porn, like prostitution, may have positive effects if practised with respect and based on artistic criteria,” she declared.
“Unfortunately the situation hasn’t changed much. New businesses have moved into the area and think it’s cool to set up an old cabaret. But as soon as they see the more explicit images their moral side takes over and they don’t hesitate to use censorship.”
Apart from porn stars and the odd director, Zoë Stähli is one of only a handful of women working in the Swiss porn industry. But she says she does not claim to be a feminist.
“I’m all for demanding equal rights between men and women, but at the same time I feel certain nostalgia for virile men of the past – the ones who used to hold open doors for me when I went into a restaurant, for example,” she said.
The polarised debate over the rights and wrongs of pornography continues to rage in feminist circles. Meanwhile, a number of female directors are producing films targeting mixed audiences.
“There are some female directors out there producing really hard-core short films and male producers trying to attract a female audience by making boring films in which actors kiss for half an hour before anything juicy happens.”
Stähli said she cannot understand the need to put labels on art or on men and women.
“The women who come to the wine bar are often more uninhibited than the men. Ironically they talk about sex more openly. The same goes for female artists: most of them produce paintings or photos that are pretty explicit,” she said.
“When people look at famous works of art, they never consider whether they are erotic or pornographic, while lesser known artists have trouble getting themselves known and are constantly seeking legitimacy. We have to struggle against this kind of conformism. The rest is just a question of semantics.”
Stefania Summermatter, www.swissinfo.ch
(Translated by Simon Bradley)