Moira Jeffrey encounters the black comedy of an artist whose work is influenced by his experiences as part of Glasgow's overspill generation

IN1781, Robert Burns went to Irvine, in an attempt to make a living in the flax trade. He worked at the heckling shop in the Glasgow Vennel, going into business with a local man named Mr Peacock. It was a desperate time. Heckling (the teasing of flax fibre) was tough work and made Burns ill.

He took long walks in Eglinton Park. He wrote poetry and dreamed of escape to the West Indies, inspired by Irvine's role in Atlantic trade and the tales of his friend, the sea captain John Wilson. He never made it, and at new year 1782, due no doubt to the usual celebrations, the heckling shop burnt down.

The building is still there, though it has been rebuilt at least twice. First, at the time, and then again

in the 1980s by the Irvine

Development Corporation: the final

heritage twist in the IDC's sixties dream of relocating the Glasgow overspill to a new utopia on the

Ayrshire coast.

It is part of the Vennel Gallery now and a perfect place to consider the work of Graham Fagen, an artist whose work deals not only with history but with myth and nostalgia and the ways we present these ideas back at ourselves through stories and music and telly and museums.

Fagen, who has been shown at the Venice Biennale and who was commissioned in 1999 by the Imperial War Museum to visit Kosovo, was four when his Glasgow home was demolished to make way for a motorway flyover, and his family moved to the new town of Irvine.

And like his friend and former collaborator, the writer Andrew O'Hagan, his experiences as part of that overspill generation provide one of the rich sources of his work. This solo show, in the run-up to an exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh in November, is a chance to see a significant aspect of his recent work in the town that shaped it.

Weapons, Fagen's series made in 1998, is a seamless museum display. A room of colour photos, neutral and authoritative, accompanied by dry text panels. Instead of medieval swords or nineteenth-century guns, Weapons describes the street armoury of twentieth-century Scotland.

There's the pish balloon, ''when it struck its target the balloon would burst, showering the recipient with pish. Mostly used in random attacks on unknown enemies.'' The flame-thrower consisting of a cigarette lighter and a can of Brut antiperspirant and the home-made crossbow, ''the main purpose was target

shooting, but occasionally it would be used to fire at friends or unknown enemies.''

Fagen's presentation is absolutely straight-faced, but amid the black comedy lies a description of something serious. Weapons is at once a documentation of our commonplace resort to violence even at the level of children's games. It is also an examination of what does and doesn't make the history books.

Likewise Nothank, his documentary about a peripheral housing scheme in which the ambitions of architects and town planners ''an enhanced sense of community'', ''a traditional village green a far cry from the dismal housing schemes of post war Glasgow'' is set against the lived experience of its residents. ''Nae swing park, nae doctor's surgery, nae supermarket.'' It's a film that has had Irvine visitors laughing out loud in recognition, but I've also seen this piece shown in London and they recognised it there, too.

More recently, Fagen, in an immaculate facsimile of Portrait Gallery style, has produced the Owners, a series of photographic portraits of the great and the good. The Owners are like ancient gods, personifications of complex power structures or historical circumstances.

CONFRONTED with the Owners you find yourself examining institutions you rarely question. There's The Owner of Broadcasting. a clownish lipsticked man and ''keen amateur radio ham''. The elegant female Owner of Myths, ''born in Greece approximately 300 BC. Today her work is used in everyday life across the whole world.'' The label tells us currently both presidents and kings employ her.

The Owner of Broadcasting crops up again, in a video piece, Radio Roselle, originally commissioned for the TV Swansong project and soon to be presented as part of

a fuller installation at the

Fruitmarket. Radio Roselle uses

the format of one of those tedious live webcasts from superstar DJs who seem to think we are interested in the sight of them picking their noses and putting records on

a turntable.

In Fagen's staging it's as though Robert Burns did in fact make it to Jamaica and fell for the music. His DJ intersperses reggae classics with Burns's ballads. This throws up the perennial issue that your average Scottish youngster finds more in common with the ''alien'' traditions of West Indian music than he does with native song.

But Radio Roselle might also be seen as an act of reconciliation between the two cultures. Like Burns's poem from the 1790s, The Slave's Lament, or the fact that one of the great contemporary African-Americans, Maya Angelou, is a huge Burns fan and teaches him in her classes to this day.

Some years ago Fagen made a sculpture called Former and Form. It was a visual metaphor for the way we ourselves are shaped, by our prevailing material circumstances, our cultural experiences, our education, our homes. At the Vennel Gallery they believe, likewise, that both

the tough times and the aspirations of his period in Irvine shaped Robert Burns.

There's even a museum information panel stating that Burns

''Came to Irvine as a man and left as a poet''.

Fagen himself would never describe his own experience in quite such dramatic terms, but this show is a fascinating portrayal of the

unexamined aspects of life that shaped that four-year-old boy moving down from Glasgow and

that continue to shape every one

of us, our expectations and our opportunities.

Graham Fagen at the Vennel continues until September 29.